WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A 10-month-old baby is among those missing and presumed dead Wednesday from the massive cyclone that hit Fiji after the boy’s parents told a local television station they lost hold of him amid ferocious winds and floodwaters that rose to their necks.
The death toll from Cyclone Winston has risen to 42. Another four people are listed as missing, including the infant on Koro Island, where at least 10 people have died.
The cyclone tore through the Pacific Island chain over the weekend with winds that reached 177 miles (285 kilometers) per hour, making it the strongest storm in Fiji’s recorded history.
The boy’s father Alifereti Samu told Fiji One Television that they ran from the coastal home where they were sheltering and were expecting the winds but not the huge seas.
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“When the winds began to rise, we then ran for safety,” he said, adding they tried to keep their son above water.
“The water level was up to my neck,” Samu said. “The house began to fall and waves began to pound on us.”
He said their son was their firstborn.
“We still haven’t found him. We believe he has been taken out to sea,” he told the network. “We are at peace with the thought that he has found eternal life.”
Government spokesman Ewan Perrin confirmed the parents’ account.
“Basically the baby was lost during the flooding,” Perrin said. “One of the parents was unable to hold onto the child and it was washed away.”
Perrin said authorities have a good grasp now on the extent of the destruction from Cyclone Winston after getting aerial images from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He said they hope to begin distributing 20 satellite phones soon to places still without communication links.
He said that within a few days of flooding, mosquitoes start to breed so authorities are urging people not to leave standing water anywhere in order to prevent an increase in illnesses such as dengue fever.
Fiji’s Disaster Management Minister Inia Seruiratu said in a briefing that the government was working to restore electricity and running water to many areas. He said a lack of reliable communications had proved to be a serious challenge.
“Fiji has suffered a terrible blow, and this rebuilding process won’t happen overnight,” he said.
Karen Allen, the head of UNICEF in the Pacific, said the priority was to get food, water and kerosene for cooking to the thousands of people staying in emergency shelters.
She said many people in the shelters are devastated.
“They’re crying, they’re stressed, they’re upset, they don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” she said.