Days after getting hit by super Cyclone Winston, residents of some remote area of Fiji are still waiting for help and aid workers are warning of potential outbreaks of the Zika and Dengue viruses. (Reuters)

On Saturday, Category 5 Cyclone Winston slammed into Fiji with sustained winds estimated at 185 mph, the strongest in the island nation’s recorded history.

The Weather Channel reports the storm killed at least 21 people in Fiji and thousands remain in shelters. The government has declared a month-long state of disaster.

The storm demolished structures all over Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. The winds were so intense that they completely wiped away the foliage in many areas. Gusts were estimated to be as high as 225 mph near the storm’s eye.

Winston ranks among strongest tropical cyclones on record to strike land anywhere in the world and is probably the most intense to come ashore since Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines with 190 mph maximum sustained winds in 2013.

According to records from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, Winston ranks as the strongest on record to occur in the Southern Hemisphere. Note, however, “reliable” intensity information only dates back to about 1990 according to Phil Klotzbach, a tropical cyclones expert at Colorado State University and contributor to the Capital Weather Gang.

Category 5 Cyclone Winston reached an estimated 185 mph before making landfall on the northern part of Fiji Saturday. This video shows an animation of color-enhanced Himawari infrared imagery of Cyclone Winston as it moves across the island. (NOAA NWS Weather Prediction Center/Facebook)

As the ferocious storm roared over Fiji, it proved terrifying for many of the 900,000 inhabiting the island nation.

“I have no words to tell you how powerful it was. Honestly,” said eyewitness Shazeel Mohd, a member of the iCyclone stormchasing community.

In the storm’s aftermath, the government of Fiji has appealed for assistance

“Tropical Cyclone Winston – the most devastating storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere – recently reached our shores, destroying homes and livelihoods, and cutting many Fijians off from utilities, telecommunications and essential medical services,” the government of Fiji posted to its Facebook page. “There is a great need for additional resources to urgently address the needs of affected Fijians and assist with the rebuilding process.”

Today, the government of Fiji posted 250 images to its Facebook page documenting the damage. “[The photos] reveal the extent of the damage caused by TC Winston,” the Facebook post says. “Most of these are structural damage to homes, schools, churches, businesses, hotes, resorts, etc. These grim images are the same everywhere and reflect the severity of the category 5 cyclone.”


(New Zealand Defence AirForce)

Incredibly, Winston remains alive and well over the tropical Pacific, after a 12-day journey in which it struck Tonga’s island of Vava’u twice. Centered about 400 miles south of Suva, Fiji, it has maximum sustained winds of about 105 mph. It is forecast to curl southwestward towards Australia’s east coast but weaken substantially if not dissipate entirely before it would become a threat.

Winston’s place in history is a subject of debate among those that study and monitor tropical cyclones. Prominent weather writers such as Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters and Bob Henson, Slate’s Eric Holthaus, and Mashable’s Andrew Freedman headlined the storm as the strongest on record in the Southern Hemisphere.

But Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at WeatherBell Analytics, says that claim is not yet supportable. He says Cyclone Zoe from 2002, which impacted some of the Solomon Islands, and Cyclone Pam, which blew through Vanuatu in 2015, may have had comparable winds. “At this time, there’s insufficient evidence to dethrone Zoe (or Pam from last year) as stronger or at least as strong as Winston,” Maue said in an email.

Winston is the latest in a line of remarkable tropical cyclones over the past year. It comes just four months after Hurricane Patricia, with peak sustained winds estimated at 213 mph in the northeast Pacific, may have become the strongest storm ever recorded by humans.

Patricia was just one of a record-setting 25 Category 4 or 5 storms in 2015 in the Northern Hemisphere, the most on record by far.

The historically strong El Nino event and manmade climate warming have combined to produce record-setting ocean temperatures in large parts of the Pacific.

The ocean temperature around Fiji as Winston made landfall, 85 degrees, was about 2-3 degrees above normal.

Discover’s Tom Yulsman offers in an depth-look at the various weather and climate factors that led to Winston’s rise.