Category 5 Cyclone Winston, Strongest Southern Hemisphere Storm In History, Slams Fiji

Cyclone Winston, the most powerful storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere, made direct landfall into Fiji late Saturday local time, delivering a crushing blow to the tiny island nation that is expected to last for days.

At least five people have been confirmed dead and whole villages are feared destroyed as the category 5 cyclone continues to batter the South Pacific country with winds up to 200 mph and waves up to 12 meters high, according to a report by the Fiji Meteorological Service. These wind gusts are strong enough for Winston to claim the title of the strongest tropical cyclone on record in the Southern Hemisphere.

“The scale of the destruction is absolutely massive and it’s still far too early to tell just how many people’s homes and livelihoods have been devastated by this storm,” Australian Red Cross aid worker Susan Slattery told SBS.

According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, Winston made landfall on the north coast of Fiji’s largest and most populous island, Viti Levu, on Saturday evening with sustained winds of 185 mph based on satellite readings, stronger than the winds at Hurricane Camille’s infamous Gulf Coast landfall in 1969. Though the worst of the storm has already left the coast of Fiji, video footage taken during the peak of the cyclone shows trees and power lines bending under the heavy winds.

The government of Fiji has declared a nationwide state of emergency for the next 30 days to deal with the widespread devastation from the storm. An official curfew is in place and all flights in and out of Fiji have been cancelled. Reports have come in stating that all houses in certain villages have been destroyed and many others have been severely damaged. Power outages are currently affecting most of the country, and broken power lines are not expected to be reconnected for days. Schools around the country have been closed for one week.

“Winston was a monster of a cyclone,” Fiji resident Nazeem Kasim told CNN. “I have not experienced anything like this before in my life, nor has my 60-year-old father.”

The full extent of the damage to Fiji has yet to be ascertained, but it is likely to be enormous given the destructive flooding, heavy rain and extremely high winds. Smaller villages with less infrastructure to withstand the might of a category 5 cyclone are likely to suffer the most.

“Families may have lost their homes and crops, therefore leaving them without shelter, food and a livelihood,” Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in the Pacific, was quoted as saying by CNN. “There is also considerable risk for those that live by the sea or rivers as flash flooding and river flooding could occur due to heavy rains.”

Power, water and communications are still down for much of the tourist hot spot’s 900,000 residents. Though the storm has gone out to sea once more and is not expected to make another landfall, concerns remain about flash flooding and mudslides. Slate offered theories as to why the strength of Winston was so sudden and overwhelming.

“Exceptionally warm ocean temperatures egged on by a record-strength El Niño were a big reason why Winston was so strong. At one point, satellite-based intensity estimates of Winston were a perfect 8.0 on an 8.0 scale.”

Hundreds of residents went into shelters during the storm, but there are grave fears for people in other parts of the island.

“Some villages have reported that all homes have been destroyed,” Jone Tuiipelehaki of the United Nations Development Program tweeted on Saturday according to SBS. “50 homes have been reported destroyed in the Navaga village in Koro Island.”

It is relatively rare for a cyclone to hit Fiji, and Winston is by far the most powerful cyclone in the nation’s history.

[Photo by UNICEF via Getty Images]