Tropical Cyclone Tomas battered island groups off Fiji's northern coast Monday, causing flooding, pounding seas and one death, but officials said the storm likely would only sideswipe the main islands of the South Pacific nation.
Some 6,000 residents fled to cyclone shelters ahead of the storm, which was already battering the Lau and Lomaiviti island groups, National Disaster Management Office director Pajiliai Dobui said. Power has been disrupted, roofs torn off by the winds and heavy rain was falling. A curfew was in place to minimize injuries.
A 31-year-old woman was swept away by strong ocean currents in northern Vanua Levu's Cakaudrove province late Friday after she saved her two children from a storm surge, police spokeswoman Atunaisa Sokomuri said. The woman had ignored warnings to stay away from the sea, she said.
Cyclone Tomas packed winds of up to 130 miles (205 kilometers) per hour at its center, with gusts of up to 175 mph (280 kph), Dobui said. The Category 4 storm was the same strength as Fiji's devastating Hurricane Bebe in 1972, which caused widespread damage and claimed 180 lives.
Fiji Tropical Cyclone Center senior forecaster Matt Boterhoven said Monday evening that while the outer islands were expected to be hit in the next 12-18 hours, the cyclone will sideswipe the main islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu as it heads northeast.
Smaller islands would be hit by gale and storm-force winds, heavy rains and seas. He said villagers can expect "a lot of damage from storm tides."
Boterhoven said on its present track the storm will be about 138 miles (220 kilometers) east of the main islands and the capital, Suva, by midmorning Tuesday.
The Disaster Management Office warned thousands of people living on the coast of outer islands in the path of the cyclone to move to higher ground because of expected floods.
Dobui said it was lucky the storm would likely pass offshore of the main islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu.
"Fiji is fortunate — the cyclone has moved away from the most populated and flood-prone areas of Fiji," he told The Associated Press. "We are counting our good luck ... one-third of our population will be spared the full brunt of the storm."
In Savusavu township on Vanua Levu, electricity was cut by high winds Sunday night. Strong winds destroyed seven homes on Qamea Island off Taveuni, near the northern tip of Vanua Levu, the National Disaster Management Office said.
Fiji's 22,000 civil servants were ordered to stay home Monday and schools throughout the country were closed.