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Fiji braces for 'dire situation' as Category 5 Cyclone Yasa threatens 600,000 people

Fiji is again bracing for a Category 5 tropical cyclone, with Tropical Cyclone Yasa anticipated to be one of the most destructive in living memory. Some 600,000 people live in its direct path, scrambling to prepare.

Fiji is again bracing for a severe tropical cyclone that has the potential to be one of the most destructive in living memory.

Key points:
  • Cyclone Yasa is tracking north-west of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu
  • It is expected to directly hit both of Fiji's main islands as a Category 5 cyclone
  • Authorities and experts fear it will devastate the country and result in high casualties

Tropical Cyclone Yasa developed into a Category 5 storm overnight, which is the highest category for tropical cyclones.

It is expected to remain at this category when it hits the country's two main islands — Viti Levu and Vanua Levu — by early Friday morning (local time).

Fiji's National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) has said some 600,000 people lie directly in the cyclone's path, based on tracking estimates from Tuesday night.

Yasa, which was last located 565 kilometres north-west of the western Fijian city of Nadi, is currently carrying winds at 200 kilometres per hour at its centre, with momentary gusts of up to 280kph.

You view a map of Cyclone Yasa's predicted track over Fiji, with an inset map of the South Pacific.You view a map of Cyclone Yasa's predicted track over Fiji, with an inset map of the South Pacific.
Cyclone Yasa will begin to batter the northern half of the Fiji island group by Thursday.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser, via Fiji Meteorological Service)

Fijians have been warned to expect destructive winds several hours before the cyclone is expected to directly pass over the country on Friday.

Fijian authorities predict the cyclone will intensify by 12:00am on Thursday (local time), with wind gusts reaching up to 300kph.

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By Thursday morning (local time), damaging gale force winds with average speeds of 75kph are expected to hit communities living on the northern halves of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, nearby smaller islands, as well as those in the Rotuma, Yasawa and Mamanuca islands.

By Thursday night, winds in these areas are expected to develop into destructive hurricane force winds reaching up to 185kph, with momentary gusts of up to 260kph.

Those living in the remainder of the Fiji island group have been told to brace for average winds of 220kph, and gusts of up to 300kph by Friday.

Authorities have also warned all Fijians to expect "flash flooding of low lying areas, phenomenal seas, damaging heavy swells, and storm surges" on Thursday and Friday.

For the latest information, visit the Fiji Meteorological Service website or Fiji's NDMO on Facebook.

Residents urged to stock emergency supplies
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Fiji NDMO director Vasiti Soko told residents to prepare their emergency kits ahead of the cyclone.

The cyclone is expected to disrupt Fiji's electricity grid and access to fresh water for several days following the storm.

As of 2:30pm on Wednesday, Fiji has closed all schools and advised all parents to keep their children indoors, while exams for senior students have been postponed.

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Vasiti Soko, NDMO director, reminded Fijians of the need to be prepared for the cyclone's onslaught in a press conference earlier today.

"We emphasise the need for people to please tie down your homes, stock up on dry food, stock up on fresh water, and ensure the safety of your children," Ms Soko said.

"Do not try and cross any flooded river or any flooded walkway, and minimise movement as the weather starts to change."

She also told Fijians to leave for evacuation centres if people anticipate their homes won't be able to withstand the force of the Category 5 cyclone.

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'Do not be caught off guard'

Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama invoked the lessons from Tropical Cyclone Harold, which battered the South Pacific in April, in an address to the nation on Tuesday.

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Fiji's PM Frank Bainimarama told Fijians to prepare for the upcoming cyclone.

"I urge communities to use this time to trim tree branches, clean drains, bought up homes, prepare emergency kits, and take other steps to keep your homes and community safe," Mr Bainimarama said.

"Let's remember Cyclone Harold. At the last minute, it ramped up in strength and ended up being worse than predicted.

"Do not be caught off guard by this latest storm."

Neville Koop, managing director of Fiji's NaDraki weather service, told ABC Radio Australia on Wednesday morning that a Category 5 cyclone will see even "well-built structures substantially damaged".

"Fiji is full of settlements and lean-to houses, which will be pretty much completely obliterated — that's what we saw with Cyclone Winston," Mr Koop told Pacific Beat.

A woman hands a man a hammer as he stands on a ladder and is nailing plastic sheeting to a corrugated iron house. A woman hands a man a hammer as he stands on a ladder and is nailing plastic sheeting to a corrugated iron house.
Residents in informal settlements are among the most vulnerable to the cyclone's devastation.(ABC News: Lice Movono)

Cyclone Winston was the last Category 5 cyclone to hit Fiji in 2016, which killed more than 40 people, and remains the Southern Hemisphere's strongest storm on record.

Before and after: Cyclone Winston
Before and after Cyclone Winston hits Fiji village of Nathamaki.Before and after Cyclone Winston hits Fiji village of Nathamaki.

Use our interactive to look through satellite photos that captured the destruction of Cyclone Winston in Fiji.

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He said Fiji's coastal communities will be "badly affected" by sea swells as they come ashore, and he anticipates there will be significant coastal erosion.

He also warned people in the region to take care amid flooding and heavy rainfall, as drowning events are most often the cause of casualties during cyclones.

"It's a dire situation. I greatly fear that lives will be lost, and certainly a lot of damage will occur," Mr Koop said.

"And this is beginning before the Christmas season. So it's a pretty tragic time around here in Fiji.

"But it doesn't mean people have stopped preparing and taking all the measures that they should take, and by and large that's pretty much what his happening."

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