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[CNN] Fiji: Deaths from Cyclone Winston reach 28 as full scope of disaster unfolds

(CNN)Workers scrambled to reach hard-hit outer islands in Fiji on Monday to fully assess the scope of the devastating cyclone that struck the Pacific Island nation over the weekend, killing at least 28 people.

Tropical Cyclone Winston, which lashed Fiji on Saturday night, is the most powerful storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere, authorities said.

The destruction was apparent wherever one looked: Giant uprooted trees resting upside down on roads. Houses with their tin roofs torn off. Residents packing up whatever belongings they could salvage from their destroyed homes.

“There are Fijians out there who are without water, without a roof over their heads, without food and without essential services,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said.

Compounding the challenge for relief workers are power outages, fallen phone lines and road blocks.

“Winston was a monster of a cyclone,” Fiji resident Nazeem Kasim told CNN. “I have not experienced anything like this before in my life, nor has my 60-year-old father.”

Monster storm

 Winds reached 296 kilometers per hour (184 mph), the Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported.

Had it occurred in the Atlantic, Winston would have been a Category 5 hurricane, but because of hemispheric nomenclature, it’s called a cyclone. (In the Northwest Pacific, it would be a typhoon; all three are the same weather phenomenon.)

Officials shuttered schools until next Monday, using the buildings as shelters for the hundreds the storm left homeless.

A curfew that the government had put in place was lifted Monday. Still, residents were asked to limit their movements as mush as possible.

Challenges await

Fiji, an archipelago collectively about the size of New Jersey, lies in the South Pacific Ocean some 1,800 miles from Australia’s east coast.

Most of the nation’s 900,000 residents live on one of two main islands: Viti Levu or Vanua Levu. But the nation is comprised of more than 100 inhabited islands.

“It is likely that smaller villages across Fiji will have suffered the most, given their infrastructures would be too weak to withstand the power of a category 5 cyclone,” said Suva resident Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in the Pacific.

“Families may have lost their homes and crops, therefore leaving them without shelter, food and a livelihood.”

Howling winds

Although not hit directly, the capital, Suva, endured damaging gale-force winds, heavy rain and power outages. Clements, who was in Suva when the storm struck, said the city experienced “destructive, howling winds, and the sound of rivets lifting from roofs a constant throughout the night.”

Jaisal Patel posted a video from Suva of electrical power lines exploding one after another.

“We were without power from 7pm local time Saturday and just got power back an hour ago,” Patel said Monday.

 The nation is a popular tourist destination. Those who were in the country are safe, said Tourism Minister Faiyaz Siddiq Koya. Now that the main airport has reopened, the ministry will prioritize their departure if they want to leave.

Record setting

Winston’s 184-mph winds smashed the previous record for a Southern Hemisphere cyclone. The old record of 178 mph was shared by Cyclone Zoe, which battered the Solomon Islands in 2002, and Cyclone Monica, which walloped Australia in 2006, according to Colorado State University hurricane expert Philip Klotzbach.

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