A state of disaster has been declared in Fiji, with a powerful cyclone due to bear down on much of the country overnight.
Cyclone Yasa is due to make landfall on Fiji’s two main islands this evening, with winds gusting as high as 350 kilometres per hour.
A nationwide curfew is now in effect and will last through the night.
The National Disaster Management Office said at least 600,000 people lie in the path of the storm, whose strength could rival the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winston in 2016.
The NDMO director, Vasiti Soko, said the time for people to evacuate was fast running out.
“For those living in coastal areas, please move to upland,” she said. “We are expecting storm surges with waves up to 16 metres.
“If you need assistance, please contact the police or your divisional commissioners emergency operation centre to hep you move.
“Please evacute now. Move your family to higher ground.”
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said Cyclone Yasa could easily surpass the devastation of 2016’s Cyclone Winston.
Winston, which was a similar magnitude, flattened villages, left 44 people dead, tens of thousands homeless and caused an estimated US$1.4 billion damage.
Bainimarama said the entire country should prepare for severe damage, though the government stood ready to respond immediately.
Thousands of residents in the north of Fiji – where Yasa is expected to make landfall – have already started to feel the effects.
The coastal village of Nabouwalu, in the northern province of Bua, is directly in the path of Cyclone Yasa.
During Winston, Bua suffered widespread devastation.
Village elder Paula Cama said during Winston, people did not heed the warnings from authorities. This time, he told RNZ Pacific from an evacuation centre, they weren’t taking any chances.
“The strong winds and heavy rain are coming and Yasa has not yet made landfall,” he said.
“We have brought supplies and food including cassava and breadfruit from our gardens as we don’t know how long we are going to be here.”
Labasa is the main town on the northern island of Vanua Levu. Journalist Seraphina Silaitoga said there was a rush of activity to shutter the town and brace for Yasa.
Heavy rain had already caused some flooding, stranding residents in some areas.
In Nabalebale Village, Cakaudrove, she said floodwaters had started to rise, inundating food gardens.
“People are not wasting time because of what happened with Winston,” she said.
“They are moving things, they are putting up shutters and identifying [evacuation centres] and already the youths know what to do.
“They know when to take the elders. Winston really really affected them.”
To the west of Vanua Levu lies Rotuma and the islanders have also been hit with strong winds and heavy rain since last night.
50-year-old Makareta Susau of Oinafa District said the wharf had been damaged.
But she said they were lucky.
“We can feel that Yasa is here already and even though we are not directly in its path we can see that with the wharf damaged, this cyclone is not to be taken lightly.
“Villagers have been busy pulling down a shed that was erected earlier to hold a function.
“People have also boarded up their homes and cleared their compounds as they stay indoors for the duration of this storm which we do not know how long it will be around.”
Meanwhile, yacht owners have moved their boats into mangroves and up rivers, their owners sheltering in hotels.
The main island of Viti Levu is already experiencing power outages.
“Our team is working on the fault and will restore power at the earliest,” Energy Fiji Limited said in a statement. “We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused.
The government also confirmed a nationwide curfew was in place from 4pm to 6am local time.
Acting Commissioner of Police, Rusiate Tudravu, said curfew passes would only be issued for emergency cases.
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