Hundreds of thousands of Fijians are being urged to flee their homes and brace for one of the most destructive tropical cyclones that has ever hit the island nation.
Tropical Cyclone Yasa - a category five system with winds of up to 260km/h - is expected to make landfall on Thursday afternoon (local time) or overnight, according to New Zealand’s WeatherWatch.
The cyclone, which has been called ‘intimidating’ by meteorologists, is expected to hit the country’s two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and the smaller islands of Rotuma, Yasawa and Mamanuca.
“This is a very serious tropical cyclone. It is potentially the strongest, earliest hurricane we’ve ever seen in the South Pacific,” Weatherwatch managing director Philip Duncan said.
The Fiji Meteorological Service reported that as of 9am (local time) on Thursday, Cyclone Yasa was sitting 140km north-west of Yasawa and 245km northwest of Nadi on Viti Levu.
The cyclone is currently tracking between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, but has been leaning more east toward the latter in recent hours.
A heavy rain warning has been issued for the entire country and flash flooding warnings are in place as deluges of water engulf entire roads in Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, according to the Fiji Meteorological Service.
Damaging heavy swells are also being seen across several islands.
"A storm this powerful can destroy buildings, uproot trees, strip trees of leaves, cause slips, flooding and coastal inundation," Mr Duncan said.
"Yasa is a life-threatening event for those in low-lying islands in the Fiji group.”
WeatherWatch staff said on their website that Yasa has “the ability to swamp entire islands, inundate entire coastal communities, wipe some small islands off the map entirely, destroy buildings, bring down trees and cause slips and flooding.”
Authorities urge Fijians to prepare for cyclone
Fiji has closed schools and stopped public transport and have urged an estimated 600,000 people to flee to an evacuation centre or prepare and reinforce their homes.
Electricity and access to fresh water is expected to be interrupted for several days following Yasa.
"I urge communities to use this time to trim tree branches, clean drains, board up homes, prepare emergency kits, and take other steps to keep your homes and community safe," Fiji's Prime Minister Frank 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."
Cyclone Harold was a category five cyclone that caused widespread destruction in Vanuatu. It was the second-strongest ever seen in Fiji behind Cyclone Pam in 2015.
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