INCREDIBLE tales of survival are emerging from villagers forced to swim for their lives desperately clinging tightly to their children to escape the wrath of Fiji's worst cyclone.
The official death toll from Winston now stands at 21 and four people are unaccounted for at sea. Reports are filtering through from outlying regions that bore the brunt of the ferocious storm about desperate measures people took to stay alive.
The Fijian Broadcasting Corporation reported that small children, elderly people and mothers carrying infants were forced to swim to safety when monster waves and winds hit their homes in outlying coastal communities along the Nabouwalu Dreketi highway.
In Varavu, Ba, 10 people, including an 18-month-old baby sheltered under a single plywood sheet for eight hours as gale-force winds and torrential rain battered their ruined home.
An extended family of 28 took refuge in a sugar-cane field after their residential compound was flattened by the cyclone.
The large family group, which included a baby and young children, spent the past two nights in the open before moving to an evacuation centre.
Even those who made it to the safety of sturdy halls and centres during the killer storm found themselves in danger.
Villagers from the Nakavika settlement in Ba resorted to pulling up floorboards of an evacuation centre at the Raviravi Sangam School and scrambled in the pitch darkness to safety after winds blew off the building's roof.
About 40 children and women were guided to safety in what has been described as a daring operation.
However, the mounting toll included the tragic death of a mother-of-nine in Tailevu who went to fetch clothes from her nearby home for her children and never returned.
Sera Tinai was found submerged in waist-deep water under a dislodged rooftop, a bag of clothes still strapped to her back. She was metres from where her husband and children were taking shelter.
Today the cyclone weakened to a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 160 km/h and gusts of up to 200 km/h.
It has started to track south and is now in a similar position as it was a week ago.
The Fijian Government has renewed warnings about flooding danger in low lying areas of the main island of Viti Levu.
The Government has posted a flood alert remains in force at the Navolau Station and the area downstream along the Upper Rewa River and at the Rewa Bridge station and low lying areas adjacent to Nausori town.
Both the Navolau and Rewa Bridge Rivers were running more than half a metre above alert levels but were starting to drop as the tropical cyclone moved further off shore.
Weatherwatch forecaster Philip Duncan said latest modelling showed the cyclone would probably try to head towards Australia before veering towards New Zealand.
Mr Duncan said the latest modelling out of Europe and the US suggested Winston would track into the central Tasman Sea this weekend and may cross the North Island and some parts of the South Island early next week.
However, if Winston did make landfall it would not be on a scale anywhere close to what Fiji had experienced, he said.
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