Powerful cyclone batters Fiji islands, maintains strength

By Marilyn Malara   |   Feb. 20, 2016 at 2:48 PM

SUVA, Fiji, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A damaging category 5 tropical cyclone has made landfall on the Pacific nation of Fiji as the most powerful storm to make landfall on record in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Fiji Meteorological Service predicts the storm will remain a category 5 as it churns westward over the islands, home to 900,000 people. It is expected to take a sharp turn southward once in open water, just missing the nearby Vanuatu Islands.

The storm is not expected to weaken in the next 72 hours.

Meteorologists said devastating winds averaging 230 km per hour, or about 143 mph. CNN reports winds reaching nearly 162 mph with gusts reaching speeds exceeding 200 mph.

Low-lying coastal areas are under a heavy swell warning. As a result of the storm, the river levels near Rewa and Navua are increasing rapidly, prompting a flood alert in the area.

"It is advisable that people are to remain prepared for destructive hurricane force winds, heavy rain with a possibility of major rivers overflowing banks," a statement from the meteorology service said.

One fatality has been reported and confirmed since Fiji began feeling the cyclone's force, an elderly man reportedly died after a roof fell on him.

Dozens of houses and a church have reportedly experienced significant damage, but no injuries have yet to be reported.

All flights to and from Fiji have been cancelled indefinitely. A nationwide curfew is also in effect as the state remains in a State of Natural Disaster, according to the official Republic of Fiji Twitter page.

Ahead of the cyclone's landfall, Fiji Prime MInister Frank Bainimarama said the country was about to face "an ordeal of the most grievous kind."

"We must stick together as a people and look after each other," he said. "Be alert and be prepared."

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