Fiji Just Got Hammered by One of the Most Powerful Tropical Storms Ever Recorded

A country that has been called "the canary in the coal mine for climate change" was hit with winds of up to 177 miles per hour, leaving thousands without power.
February 20, 2016, 8:55pm
Image via NOAA/EPA

The most powerful tropical storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere battered Fiji on Saturday with winds up to 177 miles per hour, leaving thousands without power on the island nation.

Fiji's prime minister declared a 30-day state of emergency on Saturday.

Tropical cyclone Winston hammered nearby Tonga last week, and then intensified to a Category 5 storm on Friday afternoon as it traveled over open water in the South Pacific. The storm made landfall on Fiji's main island Vitu Levu after the government-imposed curfew began at 6pm local time. The storm had sunk or destroyed boats and caused flash flooding on some of Fiji's outer islands.

more stunning, ominous Himawari satellite imagery of Severe Tropical Cyclone #Winston bearing down on Fiji pic.twitter.com/RuZ1r9PJxB

— NWS OPC (@NWSOPC) February 19, 2016

An elderly man was reportedly killed when he was struck by a roof from a house that had become unattached in the heavy winds. So far, no other fatalities have been reported.

The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) say the extent of the damage caused by Winston is "yet to be ascertained."

Catastrophic #CycloneWinston lashed down on the Fiji's main islands with very violent wind gusts up to 160mph pic.twitter.com/ERF5sGbubX

— Joint Cyclone Center (@JointCyclone) February 20, 2016

Frank Bainimarama, Fiji's prime minister, urged Fijians to prepare themselves for the worst. "We cannot afford to be complacent," Bainimarama said, according to Australian broadcaster ABC. "I am especially concerned that some people in urban areas do not appear to have heeded the warnings about the seriousness of the threat."

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"As a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind," Bainimarama added in a Facebook post.

Don't let the darkness and the sound of the wind scare you. Remain focused on your safety and act to ensure it. — FijiGov RMDNDM (@FijiGov_RMDNDM)February 20, 2016

Suva, Fiji's capital, wasn't hit directly by the storm, but OCHA said it did suffer "damaging gale force winds, heavy rain and power outages." The islands are now preparing for the aftermath, when storm surges can push the sea inland several hundred meters. The Red Cross said it was "fully prepared" in case of flash flooding.

National Disaster Management Director Akapusi Tuifagalele told FijiLive that officials were well prepared for potential havoc wreaked by the storm. "Our officers are stationed in every part of the country to assist our people and evacuation centers have been set up for people who may be at risk in their respective homes."

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The government issued a list of 758 evacuation centers across the country, which has a population of around 900,000.

Iris Low-McKenzie, the chief executive of Fiji's Save the Children office, told the Guardian that the storm could cause "catastrophic damage."

"This is a slow moving storm that's tracking an unusual pattern and has already hit Tonga twice," she said. "It looks as though the storm could pass over the international airport in Nadi, which, if significant damage is caused, will make the humanitarian response all the more difficult."

Earlier this week, Fiji's parliament unanimously voted to ratify the UN's climate change agreement, becoming the first country to do so, and has committed itself to fully transitioning to renewable energy in the next 15 years.

Pacific islanders from nations such as Fiji, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands are living on the front lines of climate change. Andy Pitman, the director of climate science at University of New South Wales, has said that "low lying atolls" like the South Pacific islands are "the canary in the coal mine for climate change." He expects many islands in the region to be "uninhabitable" by the end of this century.

Two years ago, rising sea levels meant residents of the Fijian village of Vunidogoloa had to pack their bags, making them the first citizens to be relocated under Fiji's "climate change refugee" program.

The worst of Cyclone Winston has passed over Fiji for now, but heavy rain continues to fall and lasting damage remains to be seen.

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