(Update adds comments from prime minister, updates wind speeds, headline and lede, minor edits)
Sydney, Australia, Dec 18 (efe-epa).- Powerful Cyclone Yasa has caused at least two deaths and widespread destruction in Fiji, the country’s prime minister said on Friday.
The category-5 storm is considered one of the strongest to ever hit the South Pacific.
With winds of up to 345 kilometers per hour, Yasa devastated Vanua Levu, the second largest island in Fiji, from Thursday afternoon and overnight when it destroyed houses, crops, and left villages without electricity or communications.
At least two people have died – a 45-year-old man and a three-month-old baby, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama confirmed in an address posted to his Facebook page, adding that more than 93,000 people had been in the path of the cyclone.
“The dust is yet to settle and we will continue to assess the scale of damages in the coming days but we are likely looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in damages,” he said.
“Our operational focus for the next 24 hours is on maintaining public safety, clearing roads, restoring critical infrastructure and services, reestablishing communications with severely affected areas, and coordinating support from our development partners.”
About 24,000 people are sheltering in 456 evacuation centers, the national disaster office said.
The extent of the damage is not yet known due to difficult access and remote islands still to be assessed, however photographs published on social media show destroyed buildings with walls and roofs missing, and ripped-up infrastructure, including roads.
Tens of thousands of people have been affected by the cyclone, the Fiji Red Cross said Friday, adding that its teams had reported houses and community buildings destroyed and crops flattened, with widespread power outages.
“We are very concerned for the safety of thousands of people who have experienced the brunt of this monster storm. Initial reports from volunteers are revealing destruction in Bua, a province on the island of Vanua Levu. The coastal areas of many islands have been impacted by storm surges and flooding at the height of the storm,” said Fiji Red Cross Society Director-General Ilisapeci Rokotunidau in a statement.
The Fijian government has declared a state of natural disaster for 30 days, while the disaster agency announced curfew hours from 5 pm to 6 am for Friday on Vanua Levu, and from 8 pm to 5 am for the rest of the country.
The country’s meteorological service reported on Friday that Yasa has been downgraded to category three and is “weakening very quickly.”
As it heads toward Tonga, Yasa is expected to have winds averaging 155 kilometers per hour, with gusts of up to 220 kilometers per hour, and moving at a speed of 18 kph to the southeast, leaving Fijian territory on Saturday morning.
In addition to Yasa, Cyclone Zazu also hit the South Pacific Ocean, where cyclone season occurs every year between November and April. EFE-EPA