Cyclone Gita moving away from Fiji

The worst of the storm is over for Fiji but the extent of the damage wrought to the low-lying atolls by Tropical Cyclone Gita remains to be seen.

New Zealand MetService lead meteorologist Michael Martens said the Category 4 cyclone arrived in the southern Lau island group about 6pm yesterday, slowly passing through until about 10pm.

"But even several hours either side of that would have been quite bad, similar to what Tonga experienced.

"There would have been very strong winds and heavy rain - definitely not something you would want to be in."

As the Category 4 storm approached last night, communications were lost with isolated parts of the archipelago, leaving hundreds cut off from contact with the outside world.

The main concern was for the islands of Ono-i-Lau and Vatoa, which were directly in the cyclone's path.

Three villages on Ono-i-Lau and one on Vatoa are home to about 200 people.

Wind gusts at Ono-i-Lau had reached 190km/h last night.

Desperate people boarded up their homes and stocked up on essential supplies while praying and hoping for the best before heading to the safety of emergency shelters.

In its latest forecast at 4am (NZ time) the Fiji Metservice downgraded the storm strength slightly from warnings of hurricane-force, to storm-force gales.

Sustained winds were now estimated to be about 175km/h, with gusts of up to 250km/h - down from yesterday's 195km/h sustained winds and gusts of 275km/h.

Martens said the cyclone was now south of the main Fiji island of Viti Levu and would travel west over the next 48 hours to just below New Caledonia.

It was not on track to strike New Caledonia directly, but parts of it "would still feel the effects".

"It may increase in strength again, but not by too much. The sustained winds might strengthen to 190km/h."

After passing New Caledonia, Gita is forecast to turn south on Sunday and southeast on Monday and enter the central Tasman Sea.

"It is still on track to potentially hit parts of New Zealand early next week; where exactly is still uncertain.

It would downgrade further from a tropical cyclone to an ex-cyclone, likely becoming a category 2 storm on Monday or Tuesday, as it entered the relatively cooler waters of the Tasman Sea, Martens said.

"But it would still bring very strong winds and heavy rain."

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