In the early morning hours Friday, the storm began to pull away from the islands, and residents will begin to get a sense of the damage at daybreak.
The storm reached Category 5 intensity Wednesday, Eastern time, with sustained winds of 160 mph along with higher gusts. The nation of nearly 900,000 is a small target in a large ocean, and has seen just one landfall of a Category 3 storm or stronger, which was Category 5 Cyclone Winston in 2016. That storm, which was even stronger than Yasa at landfall, killed at least 40 and left thousands homeless, shredding trees with its powerful wind gusts.
More recently, Cyclone Harold affected Fiji earlier in the year, after hammering the small island nation of Vanuatu. Only three storms of Category 3 intensity or greater have passed near Fiji.
According to the Fiji Meteorological Agency, Yasa struck with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, making it a strong Category 4 storm, down slightly from its peak intensity as a Category 5. In a Facebook post, the agency warned of a 10-foot storm surge and waves of 45 feet or higher as the storm moved in.
“The government is pleading with you to please move upland. We’re expecting storm surges,” Vasiti Soko, director of Fiji’s disaster office, said.
According to the Associated Press, Fiji declared a state of natural disaster and imposed a curfew in advance of the storm. Authorities also opened about 1,000 storm shelters to move people away from the vulnerable shoreline. The power was cut to much of the country as the storm’s winds approached.
Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach said Cyclone Yasa is the most powerful storm to form in the 2020-2021 tropical season so far.
Fiji’s prime minister, Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, has been a forceful advocate for taking action to reduce the severity of climate change, given his country’s vulnerability to sea-level rise and extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones. “On this same day in 2012, Fiji was enduring Cyclone Evan,” Bainimarama said on his Facebook page.
“Since then, we’ve been battered by 12 more cyclones — two of which (Winston and Yasa) are now jockeying for our hemisphere’s strongest-ever storm in history,” he said.
“This is not normal,” he stated. “This is a climate emergency.”
Fiji was the first country in the world to ratify the Paris climate accord, which calls upon countries to make emissions cuts consistent with limiting global warming to well below 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels, with a more ambitious target of 2.7 degrees (1.5 Celsius) as an aspirational goal.
Scientific studies show climate change is causing tropical cyclones to dump heavier rainfall, and intensify more rapidly as sea and air temperatures increase. In addition, some ocean basins are seeing an extension of the storm season, with powerful tropical cyclones — a term that also includes hurricanes and typhoons, forming in regions they did not used to spin up in.
Fiji’s economy has suffered from the lack of tourism during the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place to keep the virus out of the country. These restrictions, plus the remoteness of the country, could complicate storm relief efforts.