Fiji says two dead as powerful cyclone tears across Pacific nation

Super cyclone Yasa triggered floods, landslides and blackouts before moving out to sea early on Dec 18.
Super cyclone Yasa triggered floods, landslides and blackouts before moving out to sea early on Dec 18.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY/SUVA (REUTERS/AFP) - A powerful cyclone pounded Fiji, killing two people, including a three-month old baby, and leaving a trail of destruction across the Pacific Island nation, authorities said on Friday (Dec 18).

Cyclone Yasa, a top category five storm, made landfall over Bua province on the northern island of Vanua Levu on Thursday evening (Dec 17), bringing torrential rain, widespread flooding and winds of up to 285 km per hour across the archipelago. 

Scores of houses were destroyed, while power was cut to some areas and roads blocked by fallen trees and flash flooding, authorities said.

Images shared on social media showed roads blocked by landslides, floodwaters and power lines.

All roads in Rakiraki, a district on the main island with about 30,000 residents, were flooded, Fiji’s Road Authority said. 

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama confirmed the two deaths in a video posted in Facebook. 

“Two fatalities have been confirmed. A 45-year old man in Labasa and a three-month old baby,” he said.

“The dust has yet to settle... but we are likely looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.” 

“Villages in Vanua Levu have lost a lot of houses. The wind has flattened many community buildings and crops have been flattened,” Fiji Red Cross Society Director-General Ilisapeci Rokotunidau told Reuters by phone from Suva, the country’s capital.

Bainimarama said authorities were scrambling to help affected communities. 

Adverse weather has hampered efforts by aid groups to dispatch assistance, with waves of more than 3 metres preventing ships leaving Suva.

Concerns remain about heavy rains, although the storm has weakened in strength and is now a category two as it moves south across the island chain. 

Yasa is one of the most powerful storms recorded in Fiji, and there were fears it would have the same devastating impact as Cyclone Winston in 2016, which killed 44 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes.

"The weather's still not good but aerial assessments will hopefully be done later today and teams deployed on the ground when the seas are not so rough for the boats to reach the island, Save the Children's Fiji chief Shairana Ali told Agence France-Presse earlier. 

Ali also said there were "significant numbers" of people in evacuation centres, but precise details would not be available until damage assessments were complete.

"In these remote areas, houses are not built to withstand Category Five cyclones, so a lot of people have lost their homes," she said.

"Most of these people rely on farming for their livelihood and their crops have been destroyed as well."

Authorities have been issuing dire warnings about the danger posed by the cyclone for most of the week, urging people to shelter in solid structure and flee to higher ground if they live on the coast.

A state of natural disaster was declared on Thursday, giving emergency services sweeping powers to impose curfews and movement restrictions for the next 30 days. The government had also ordered its entire population of nearly 1 million people to seek shelter. 

Aid agencies have pre-positioned supplies across the country in anticipation of a major disaster during cyclone season, which runs until May.

Bainimarama, a long-time campaigner for climate action, blamed global warming for such super storms, which were once rare but have become relatively common.

"This is not normal. This is a climate emergency," he tweeted.

The most recent Category Five storm to hit Fiji was Cyclone Harold, which killed 31 people as it tore through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in April this year.