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Nearly 2 Dozen People Dead After Tropical Cyclone Hits Fiji

Road workers remove a fallen tree blocking a road near Lami, Fiji, after Cyclone Winston hit on Saturday.

A powerful cyclone with gusts of up to 200 mph that ripped through the island nation of Fiji over the weekend killed at least 21 people, according to the United Nations.

Whole villages were flattened and at least four people were missing as a result of what the U.N. is calling "one of the most severe [cyclones] ever to hit the South Pacific." About 8,100 people remain in evacuation shelters.

The Category 5 storm tracked along the northern coast of Fiji's main island of Vita Levu, ripping the roofs off houses, flooding buildings and downing power lines and trees. The eye of the storm did not hit Fiji's capital, Suva, which is in southern Vita Levu.

As a nationwide curfew lifted Monday morning, Fiji began assessing the damage. The country of nearly 900,000 people comprises more than 300 islands.

Particularly hard-hit was the island of Koro, home to 3,450 people, which "was in the eye of the cyclone and saw whole villages destroyed," the U.N. says. The government is sending an assessment and relief team to the battered island.

"There are Fijians out there who are without water, without a roof over their heads, without food and without essential services. It is our duty to determine their needs and provide them with the support they need as soon as possible," Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in a press statement.

New Zealand was sending a plane Monday loaded with "relief supplies and an emergency supply team," the country's foreign minister, Murray McCully, told Reuters.

One reason why it's been challenging to assess the damage from Cyclone Winston: There are still "communication blackspots" that the government has yet to reach, Oxfam in the Pacific's regional director, Raijeli Nicole, said in a statement.

"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," Nicole added.

The Fiji Times has this story about one cyclone victim named Sera Tinai:

"As strong winds and waves pounded Qelekuro Village in Tailevu on Saturday night, the wails of one-year-old Vive Marama was still heard and every villager was asking where her mother, Sera Tinai was.

"Marama's elder sister, 10-year-old Salacieli Serevi tried to comfort her and every other villager in the darkened village hall also tried to pacify the toddler with pancakes and food.

"Villagers said it was probably the time when Tinai was struggling to survive in waist deep sea water that had seeped into the village.

"Tinai... was found five metres away from a house where some family members were sheltered.

"She still had on her back a bag that contained her children's clothes, which she had gone to fetch after leaving her children in the hall."

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