Disaster management officials in Fiji say they have received reports of several deaths in the powerful category four cyclone that has battered the island nation for four days.
The deaths are believed to have occurred in the Lau group of islands, but police say they will not be able to confirm them until communications are restored.
At least 50 homes, as well as hospitals and other public buildings, have been destroyed by Cyclone Tomas and 17,000 people have been evacuated to more than 200 shelters.
Fiji’s interim government has declared a state of disaster and New Zealand has announced it is sending an air force Hercules to assist in relief efforts.
The cyclone has been downgraded to a category three storm.
Winds of up to 250 kilometres per hour have ripped roofs off houses.
Tomas moved first through the northern division and is currently affecting the smaller low-lying islands in the east.
Sai Matanatabu, a hotel worker in Suva, says it was the biggest cyclone she has lived through.
“The Cyclone Tomas now we could feel is a bit stronger than what we have experienced before,” she said.
But Suva is located on the south-east edge of the main island, Viti Levu. Some of Ms Matanatabu’s colleagues have relatives on the island of Taveuni in the north, which was one of the first and hardest hit areas.
“What they could feel is strong winds. And even their neighbours, they could see their rooftop. It blew off from what they’ve seen. Even some of the electrical appliances as well like their washing machine,” she said.
That has been the story across most of the northern group of islands.
However Anthony Blake, a relief coordinator with Fiji’s disaster management organisation, DISMAC, says the centre of the cyclone is now strongest in the east.
“In the northern division, what we get is roofs blown off, houses flattened, trees being broken,” he said.
“In the eastern division in the Lau Group, we’ve got unconfirmed reports where whole villages have had roofs blown off and people are taking shelter in caves.
“For the people in Lau it’s definitely not over and it will not be over for eight to 12 hours. However for the northern division, they are breathing a sigh of relief as the winds are now dropping.
“We should have a better situation overnight and into (Wednesday) and we are hoping for fine weather so that people can get out and pick up the pieces, as well as our assessment teams getting out to as many places as possible.”
Senior forecaster at Fiji’s bureau of meteorology, Matt Boterhoven, says the strength of the winds would have created a massive roar.
“I think a few observations have managed to get through. Some places have had close to 300 millimetres (of rain) in 24 hours,” he said.
“A lot of storm tide of seven metres has been affecting a lot of these islands and a few people have been evacuated from coastal areas.
“There would have been significant flooding, flooding in low-lying coastal areas and flooding in Labasa in the northern islands. Fifty people had to be evacuated due to rising river levels.”
Damage to telecommunications has meant information about conditions on the ground in affected areas is patchy.
UNICEF spokesman Tim Sutton says hospitals are having to move patients within their grounds due to winds ripping off roofs.
“Several hospitals had lost their roofs. They were moving patients around from ward to ward to keep them safe,” he said.
“A number of schools have been damaged and we have something like 90 schools now serving as evacuation centres.
“And so it’s going to be a considerable disruption to schooling even once the cyclone has passed because it will take a while to get people out of the schools.”
Mr Sutton says there is likely to be around 130,000 people affected by the cyclone and even when the worst of the cyclone is over, there will still be dangers.
“The Lau group are the islands to the east of Fiji. They’re very low lying, very, very vulnerable to this type of event,” he said.
“Mainly village areas, small towns, a lot of farming. We know there’s been a lot of damage to food crops. It’s not a built-up area like Suva or Nadi. It’s small towns and villages.
“Fiji has been suffering from an outbreak of typhoid for the last month or so, so with people congregating in evacuation centres there is the potential for that also to explode.
“And I know the minister of health has been very active in getting messages out to people in the evacuation centres to practice good hygiene, boil water, because there is a huge risk that by concentrating people in these cramped conditions we could also have an explosion of typhoid.”