Satellite image of Cyclone Evan over Samoan islands

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NEW: Tropical Cyclone Evan is lashing Samoa and American Samoa

Deadly storm is the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane

Evan is headed toward Fiji

CNN  — 

Tropical Cyclone Evan is battering the South Pacific with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph and gusts up to 144 mph, according to the Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii.

And things might get worse. Forecasters predict Evan could get stronger over the next 36 hours, evolving into a more powerful Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 126 mph, as it creeps southwest, away from the Samoan islands and toward Fiji.

Fiji’s meteorological service said Evan was expected to arrive in that country’s waters by Sunday.

The National Weather Service in Pago Pago, American Samoa, canceled its gale warning Thursday, but reiterated high surf and small craft advisories for the islands, expecting gusts up to 35 mph, heavy rain and towering waves.

There were reports of two deaths in Samoa, an independent country with a population of 183,000. American Samoa is a U.S. territory with a population of about 55,000.

Journalist Cherelle Jackson told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that there was heavy damage in the Samoan capital of Apia, with houses flattened by the storm.

Storm surge and high surf, which the U.S. National Weather Service said could reach 20 feet in the islands, was making a mess of Apia, Jackson said, adding water and power service had been knocked out.

Many of the open-style Samoan homes, or fales, which don’t have windows or doors, sustained heavy damage, she said.

“I don’t think we were well prepared because the warning didn’t get serious until late last night,” Jackson said in a phone interview with the Australian network.

Jackson said food could be a problem once the storm passes because the trees that supply Samoan staples, such as breadfruit, taro and bananas, had taken a heavy hit from the storm’s winds. “The breadfruits are just all over the road,” she said.

The New Zealand high commissioner in Apia, Nick Hurley, told Radio New Zealand of heavy damage.

“From what I have seen and heard it has made a huge impact on, for a start, all the vegetation, the trees, the infrastructure, all around Apia the power is out. A lot of people don’t have any water . The trees have snapped, in a lot of cases have actually come down across roads, crashed into the fale, onto the houses,” Hurley is quoted as saying.

CNN’s Jessica King contributed to this report and Brad Lendon and Mark Morgenstein wrote this report