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Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Yasa threatens to cause major disaster in Fiji

It would be the second-strongest storm on record in Fiji.

A resident secures his house by placing plastic sheets on the windows ahead of the arrival of Cyclone Yasa in Fiji's capital, Suva, on Wednesday. (Lice Movono/AFP/Getty Images)
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Tropical Cyclone Yasa, currently the strongest storm on Earth, is headed for a potentially devastating landfall in Fiji within the next 24 hours.

The storm is now packing sustained winds estimated at 160 miles per hour, which makes it the equivalent of a Category 5 storm. It threatens to cause damage on the scale of Tropical Cyclone Winston, which caused widespread destruction when it hit in 2016.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center is forecasting the storm to pass between the main islands of Fiji, but close enough to bring its fiercest winds and heaviest rains to the main island of Viti Levu as well as Vanua Levu and some smaller islands. It’s possible, though, that the eye of the storm will came ashore in one or more islands, which could increase the threat of storm surge flooding as well as catastrophic winds and major flooding.

The nation of 600,000 is a small target in a large ocean, and has seen just one landfall of a Category 3 storm or stronger, which was Winston. More recently, Cyclone Harold also hit Fiji, after hammering the small island nation of Vanuatu. Only three storms of Category 3 intensity or greater have passed near Fiji.

Fiji reeling after devastating Cyclone Winston, among the strongest ever to strike land

Winston was stronger than Yasa, packing winds of 185 mph at landfall, which made it one of the most powerful tropical cyclones (a term that also includes hurricanes and typhoons) to make landfall anywhere in the world. The storm demolished structures all over Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. Foliage was ripped off trees, and gusts may have been well more than 200 mph in some spots.

According to the Fiji government, Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and other islands could see wind gusts up to 160 mph by the afternoon on Thursday, and wave heights of 45 feet or higher as the storm closes in. “There is [a] risk of sea flooding of low-lying coastal areas, especially during high tide from storm surges and damaging heavy swells on Thursday and Friday,” the government warned via a message posted on Facebook.

The government has opened evacuation centers throughout the country in advance of the storm. According to a report from Australia’s ABC News, Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office calculated that 600,000 people live in the path of the storm.

“Do not be caught off guard by this latest storm,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said.

Fiji has been hit hard economically by the coronavirus pandemic, which has squelched tourism, a major source of revenue, and put many out of work.

Under Bainimarama’s leadership, Fiji has become an effective proponent of climate action. As a member of AOSIS, a group of 44 small island and low-lying coastal developing states, Fiji is viewed as especially vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, particularly through sea level rise and extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones. On Dec. 11, the U.N. Environment Program named him a “champion of the Earth” for his efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and negotiate global climate agreements.

The country was the first to ratify the Paris climate accord, according to the program, and is trying to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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