Source AP ©

Heavily populated areas of Fiji islands safe from Cyclone Daman

A powerful cyclone shattered some small islands in northern Fiji, but missed heavily populated areas in the South Pacific nation.

Cyclone Daman remained a Category 4 storm early Saturday, forecaster Alipate Waqaicelua said, "but we've got to be thankful that it missed the two larger islands of Fiji."

"Unfortunately Cikobia got the full brunt of the storm as it passed over it," he said. "While the cyclone is weakening (slowly) it's still packing a very strong punch."

Cikobia, a small northern island, has a population of at least 100 people.

The cyclone was on a track that would take it about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Fiji's northern Lau islands group by about midday Saturday, he said.

"On its current track it will head toward open water," between Fiji and near neighbor Tonga, Waqaicelua told The Associated Press from Fiji's Nadi weather center. "I hope it stays on that track."

Fiji disaster management officials said they lost all contact with Cikobia as the cyclone hit the island with winds at its center gusting to 250 kph (154 mph).

Disaster office spokesman Jioji Satakala said heavy rain was falling and people in the main villages had all moved into reinforced houses to seek refuge when contact was lost.

"At that time everyone was still ... alive and safe," he said.

People in the Lomaiviti island group and on Vanua Levu - Fiji's second main island - had escaped serious damage and there had been no reports of injury so far, he added.

As Daman sideswiped the Labasa area of northern Vanua Levu, landslides sparked by heavy rain closed some highways, flooding hit low-lying areas, and gusting winds destroyed trees, disaster office spokesman Pajiliai Dobui said.

"At the moment, everything is normal, no rain, no strong wind" as the storm center passed, Labasa police spokesman Sanjey Raj said as dawn broke in the town.

Waqaicelua said the cyclone "is still Category 4 and is still an intense system" but had "missed Vanua Levu because of the change of track."

About 90,000 people live on Fiji's three main island groups of Lau, Lomaiviti and Vanua Levu, many of them living on subsistence-level fishing and farming.

Fiji has been hit by 13 tropical cyclones in the past decade - the worst in 2003 when the lower-intensity Cyclone Ami hammered the Labasa region of Vanua Levu and killed 17 people.

The country's worst death toll in recent decades was 70 killed when the moderately strong Cyclone Lottie sank two ships off western Fiji in 1973.

Tropical storms are common in the South Pacific from November to April and range from category 1 to category 5. The most powerful can pack sustained winds of 210 kph (130 mph).