Care Australia said officials in Suva confirmed the body count had jumped steeply from six previously, amid fears the number will continue to rise as news filters in from remote areas. "Care Australia can confirm that figure of 17 dead," a Care spokesman told AFP after a briefing with disaster management officials in the Fijian capital.
Severe tropical cyclone Winston, the first category five storm in Fiji, hit the Pacific nation overnight Saturday, packing wind gusts of 325 kilometres per hour, leaving a trail of destruction. No immediate breakdown of the fatalities was available but the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reported many were from the hard-hit west of the country and seven fishermen were missing at sea.
The cyclone, the strongest ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, flattened scores of homes, crippled infrastructure and forced terrified residents to shelter in evacuation centres.
Oxfam's Pacific regional director Raijeli Nicole said the scale of the disaster would only become apparent when communications were restored with the remote communities that experienced the storm's full fury. "The Fijians are desperately trying to repair severed lines of communication, but they hold grave fears that the news waiting for them will be dire," she said.
"Given the intensity of the storm and the images we have seen so far, there are strong concerns that the death toll won't stop climbing today and that hundreds of people will have seen their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed."
International tourists caught up in the disaster began to leave as flights resumed at Nadi airport after a two-day suspension.
Air New Zealand confirmed one of its aircraft departed at 9:30 AM (local time) and other carriers including Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Fiji Airways were also expected to begin operations again. Fiji's economy relies on tourism and the island chain is a major destination for Australians and New Zealanders.
With communications still down in many areas, Tourism Minister Faiyaz Siddiq Koya assured concerned relatives unable to contact their families that "all visitors are safe and comfortable."