SUVA, Fiji – SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Australian and New Zealand air force planes began airlifting emergency supplies Wednesday to cyclone-battered Fiji, where a state of emergency has been declared and troops ordered to launch relief operations in northern regions hit by a powerful cyclone that forced thousands of people to flee into shelters.
Cyclone Tomas' onslaught was weakening Wednesday, but the scope of destruction was not clear because communications were cut to outer island groups and to northern areas of Vanua Levu, the group's second-biggest island, that were hardest hit, officials said.
One death has been reported, and a nationwide curfew was due to be lifted Wednesday.
Fiji's National Disaster Council declared a 30-day state of emergency for the country's northern and eastern divisions Tuesday, ordering troops to be deployed as soon as possible to provide relief, including food, water and basic supplies.
Packing winds of up to 130 mph (205 kph) at its center, and gusts of up to 175 mph (280 kph), Cyclone Tomas continued to blast through the northern Lau and Lomaiviti island groups and the northern coast of Vanua Levu on Tuesday, the nation's weather office said.
Matt Boterhoven, Fiji's Tropical Cyclone Center's senior forecaster, said sea surges of up to 23 feet (7 meters) were reported in the Lau island group, which was hit head-on by the cyclone, causing major flooding. The surges would take at least 36 hours to subside, he said.
Hercules cargo planes from Australia and New Zealand left early Wednesday for Fiji with relief supplies, including tarpaulins, food and water treatment tablets.
The planes would then carry out reconnaissance work and damage assessment.
"It appears that after the initial reconnaissance work's undertaken ... it'll be necessary to fly some supplies from Nadi or Suva to the affected areas," New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully told National Radio.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith pledged $1 million dollars in initial aid, adding that, "Australia will consider further assistance for reconstruction once damage has been more fully assessed."
National Disaster Management Office spokesman Anthony Blake said power, water, sewage and other services were disrupted in many northern areas, with all airstrips and airports closed and storm surges smashing into coastal villages and schools. More than 17,000 people were in 240 government shelters, he said.
Initial damage assessments will be made Wednesday, when airplanes are expected to survey the northern islands and Vanua Levu, Blake said.
The country's military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarara, has appealed for international assistance, and the governments of New Zealand, France and Australia were trying to determine how best to help.
The capital, Suva, has been lashed by high winds and rains, and the government extended a nationwide curfew to Wednesday morning to keep people in their homes.
Flights resumed on Tuesday into the main international airport at Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu. There were no immediate reports of tourists being caught in the cyclone.
Late Friday, a 31-year-old woman was swept away by strong ocean currents in Vanua Levu's Cakaudrove province after she saved her two children from a storm surge, police spokeswoman Atunaisa Sokomuri said.