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A tropical cyclone is expected to miss Fiji today but will continue to bring heavy rainfall, strong winds and damaging swells to the flooded South Pacific nation, a meteorologist says, as the Fijian government lifted its ban on flights carrying inbound passengers.
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Devastating floods in Fiji
RAW VISION: Heavy rains trigger massive flooding in parts of Fiji, killing at least three people and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
At least three people have died and about 8000 Fijians have been relocated to emergency evacuation centres, Agence France-Presse reported.
Tourists were also stranded after a tropical storm inundated Fiji, flooding properties and roads.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr says Qantas will increase capacity to ensure stranded Australians can get home.
He said he spoke with the airline's chief executive Alan Joyce, who told him, "Qantas will add capacity as required".
International Federation of Red Cross shelter and disaster management delegate David O'Meara told smh.com.au on the phone from Fiji's capital Suva.
"The flooding comes on top of the earlier flooding in January and is more extensive. ... It's all through the west and up in the north."
Fiji has "had a bashing", the country's permanent secretary of information Sharon Smith Johns said, with water and power supplies cut in most areas and many roads closed.
"Regardless of whether we get a cyclone or not, we could get hit with more rain and more flooding," she told Radio Australia.
Australia has pledged whatever assistance is needed, Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr said. Fiji has not called for international assistance, although New Zealand also said it was ready to help.
About 1400 Australians were registered in Fiji, although there were expected to be more unregistered Australians, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) spokesman said.
People were getting mad, saying they were elderly or they had a baby. It felt like the Titanic
DFAT was offering support to some stranded Australians and was in regular contact with DISMAC, Fiji's National Disaster Management Office.
The spokesman said DFAT was also in contact with major hotels and resorts to monitor the availability of food and water.
There were three Australian officials stationed at Nadi airport to provide help, he said.
Monsoonal rains were expected to continue in Fiji until the middle of this week, Weatherzone senior meteorologist Josh Fisher said in a statement this afternoon.
A tropical depression was west of the Fijian islands and, while there was a risk it could intensify into a tropical cyclone today, it was expected to remain west of the main island as it moved southward, he said.
"While the system should not directly hit Fiji, it will at least continue to generate very heavy rainfall, squally winds and damaging swells," Mr Fisher said.
"There are flood warnings in place for all major rivers, streams and low lying areas of [Fiji's largest island] Viti Levu. Already, more than 230 millimetres of rain falling Nadi during the past 48 hours. Winds could gust up to 110km/h today as the system continue to strengthen."
State of emergency declared
A state of natural disaster was declared for western Fiji following flooding in which at least three people have died and 4000 have been forced into evacuation centres.
Power has been cut on Viti Levu.
Incoming flights to Nadi were stopped last night and scheduled flights out of Nadi to Auckland, Melbourne and Honolulu were cancelled.
But the ban was lifted this afternoon and Air Pacific, Fiji's national airline, said in a statement that it would make "all attempts possible to get passengers on flights travelling to Fiji today from Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane and Los Angeles".
The flight FJ910 was expected to depart Sydney for Nadi at 2.10pm, while flight FJ922 was due to depart Brisbane at 11.55pm local time, the airline said, adding that passengers should expect boarding and departure delays and that some flights would be without food or meals.
Travellers were urged to contact their airlines directly about their flights in and out of Nadi before travelling to the airport, the DFAT spokesman said.
"This is very bad for Fiji, it will take a long time to fix up and get the tourists back," taxi driver Mohammad Yakub told AFP as he surveyed the devastation.
He said his family was surviving on tinned food as all the crops in his small plot of land had been destroyed and his local market was unlikely to reopen for weeks.
"I don't know what people will eat. They will have to bring food in soon," he said.
Earlier flight restrictions
Mr Carr said: "Australians travelling to Fiji ought to be aware of the restrictions."
"We're not aware at this stage of Australians who have been injured or whose safety is seriously at risk."
Resorts are running out of food and locals in surrounding areas have been urged to boil rainwater, which was continuing to pour down last night.
A Jetstar spokesman said this morning that JQ119 was due to depart Sydney at 9am as scheduled. The flight would be empty but would be taking passengers from Nadi back to Sydney, he said.
He said the 160 passengers who were due to fly today were contacted by the airline and offered flexible flight dates, a refund, a credit voucher, a change of travel dates for flights up to and on April 29, or a switch to other flights on the Jetstar network.
There were no plans to add extra flights on to the Sydney-Nadi route, he said, adding that the next Jetstar flight was due to leave Sydney on Wednesday. Passengers in Fiji could contact the airline on 0800 2171 or +61 3 9347 0091.
A spokeswoman for Virgin Australia said two flights, DJ176 and DJ156, were departing Fiji today as scheduled.
One flight from Fiji to Australia and three flights departing Australia for Fiji - DJ175, DJ157 and DJ195 - were cancelled, she added.
Frantic scenes at airport
At Nadi Airport, frantic people crowded around equally frantic staff. Others lay on makeshift mattresses. Many had been stranded for several days.
Ann Wilson and her three grandchildren had to be flown by helicopter from a golf course after being stranded with hundreds of other tourists, including many Australians.
They were forced to move from the Westin hotel to the Sheraton as a result of the flooding, then she scrambled with other tourists to be selected for the helicopter, waiting 3½ hours before flying out of one of many danger zones.
"People were getting mad, saying they were elderly or they had a baby," Ms Wilson said. "It felt like the Titanic."
She said she tried to explain to her daughter-in-law what conditions were like, but she would not listen.
"She said to me 'I wish I could be stranded in Fiji,'" said Ms Wilson, who had been staying in Denarau. "She doesn't understand. She could have been wading in sewage."
An NRL delegation in Fiji to promote rugby league was also affected. The retired stars Adam MacDougall, Rhys Wesser and Matt Cross had been due to leave Suva yesterday, but because flights were affected they spent hours at the airport signing autographs and posing for photos.
DFAT advised Australians to reconsider their travel to the Western Division of Viti Levu, including Nadi and the Coral Coast.
Pat Lavin, 69, an American tourist stranded at the Shangri-La Hotel on Yanuca Island, told her daughter Karen Kieffer there was no electricity nor water at the hotel and some ill guests were waiting for a doctor.
Ms Lavin, who is in the region for a "trip of a lifetime" with two friends, said hotel staff planned to get them to their flight tomorrow night by walking them to the edge of the resort's compound.
The tourists would then walk over wooden planks with their luggage to a bus that would bring them to the airport, she said.
"It's like the Bridge Over the River Kwai," she told her daughter in an email.
"Our spirits are good. The favourite Fijian saying is 'Don't worry, no problem'."
'Without running water'
Melbourne woman Tai Snaith, who is staying at the Hilton hotel on Denarau Island just outside Nadi with her partner, her 18-month-old son and her partner's mother, said she would try to leave Fiji today before the cyclone hit.
She said the hotel had been without running water since yesterday morning.
"When we arrived on Saturday we just thought it was a storm and it would pass," Ms Snaith said.
"Now you just keep thinking it's not going to be long until we get sick."
Ms Snaith, from Northcote, said her son had developed a cough, but otherwise the family was fine and the hotel had coped well with the disaster.
She urged Australians to donate as much as possible to Fijians, saying the floods would leave a huge clean-up bill.
Workers at the hotel had put on a brave face, despite being unable to leave and check on their own families.
"A friend of mine is an aid worker in Suva and she had just finished setting up schools that were destroyed by floods in January. Now they're just gone again," Ms Snaith said. "It's just so sad. It will devastate them."
Ms Snaith said the hotel had been providing food to guests, and had not been charging them, in lieu of donations to those who had lost their homes.
She said hotel management were confident the food would last until the disaster was over.
Honeymoon in Fiji
Alana Nixon and her husband had travelled to Fiji for their honeymoon and were at the Hilton hotel on Viti Levu. She said power and water supplies were intermittent while food supplies were getting low.
She said that, while the experience was "not the honeymoon I imagine", she was just happy to spend some time with her husband. "We are safe and have enough food," she said.
Tourists at the hotel were at the reception playing cards, reading books and sharing information about what was happening. The hotel had put on extra movies for the children, staff were being helpful and "spirits are still high", Ms Nixon added.
She said a Fijian who had lived on the island for four decades told her it was the worst weather he had ever seen.
'Remarkable Fijian people'
Sydneysider Stephanie McGrath, who arrived back from Fiji yesterday, said that while her first trip to the country was dramatic, she "always felt safe and looked after by the remarkable Fijian people".
"They were indefatigably kind and thoughtful in very trying circumstances, with some very anxious tourists."
She said while there were a lot of "It's Fiji-time" explanations when things did not happen quickly, "everything happens eventually and with such grace and those beautiful smiles".
Weather hampers clean-up efforts
Police and the military were helping co-ordinate clean-up efforts but the ferocious weather meant that in some areas makeshift repairs to damaged homes were torn apart almost as soon as they were completed.
The entire centre of Nadi was declared off-limits to the public because police said the force of water running through the streets after the town's river burst its banks threatened to sweep people away.
The latest flood disaster comes after a six-day deluge in January claimed 11 lives.
- with Stephanie Gardiner, Nino Bucci and AFP
If you are concerned about your family and friends in Fiji and are unable to contact them directly, phone DFAT on 1300 555 135 or +61 2 6261 3305.
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