Island villagers in the South Pacific nation of Fiji raced for higher ground Friday, as tropical cyclone Daman strengthened into a Category 4 storm and threatened to swamp neighbourhoods and knock down flimsy thatched homes of farmers and fishermen.

Daman, packing winds of up to 240 kilometres an hour, lashed Fiji's northern chain of islands and dumped heavy rains that caused landslides. Officials were forced to close some highways and the forceful gusts ripped apart some trees, Fiji Disaster Management Office spokesman Pajilai Dobui said Friday.

Fiji's second-largest island, Vanua Levu, is expected to take a pounding early Saturday, forecasters said, warning of "phenomenal seas" and "very destructive winds."

Although Dobui noted that the slow-moving system appeared to be veering eastward away from Vanua Levu, he added "the risk is still very high" for animpact.

As a Category 4 storm, Daman is only one category short of being what Fiji's Director of Meteorology Rajendra Prasad described as "a super hurricane."

Residents in Vanua Levu, as well as people in the Lau and Lomaiviti island groups, were advised to leave coastal areas and abandon low-lying areas to seek shelter in secure buildings.

The three island groups, which are expected to see some 25 centimetres of rain, are home to some 90,000 people, many of whom are subsistence fishermen and farmers.

"It's most likely going to be one of the severest cyclones to hit the country in recent times," disaster office director Joeli Rokovabe told the Associated Press.

A number of tourist resorts were also reportedly at risk and airlines operating in Fiji cancelled some domestic and international flights due to the weather, local media said.

Most of Fiji's holiday resorts are located on the largest island, Viti Levu, which is south of the storm's path.

Fiji has endured 13 tropical cyclones in the last 10 years, the worst being the lower-intensity Cyclone Ami that hammered Vanua Levu, killing 17 people there.

In 1973, Cyclone Lottie sank two ships off western Fiji, killing 70 people.

With files from the Associated Press