Late on Thursday, the 17th of December 2020, Cyclone Yasa, a top category 5 storm, touched down in Bua province on the northern island of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island. The island’s population of 136,000 was met with torrential rains, widespread flooding and wind gusts of up to 217 miles per hour.
With reconnaissance flights showing entire villages wiped out and damages estimated at upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars, the wake of Yasa is being compared to a war zone. The government has declared a state of natural disaster for 30 days as emergency services rush to provide food and clothing to the worst affected areas. The National Disaster Management Office said in a statement that more than 93,000 people were affected by the storm, and the number of casualties will rise when communications are restored to hard-hit areas such as the eastern Lau islands group, where the extent of the damage remains unknown.
24,000 people were evacuated from their homes at the height of the storm and were moved to 456 evacuation centers across the nation. Of those 24,000 evacuated, 16,113 people are still unable to return home. Vasiti Soki, director of the National Disaster Management Office estimates the full scale of the damage to be hundreds of millions of dollars. However, Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama suggested the damage is likely to surpass 2016’s Cyclone Winston, one of the most destructive storms ever in the Pacific region whose damage totaled at $1.4 billion.
The severe nature of the storm is not surprising to the island nation which has now been battered by 12 cyclones since 2012, two of which (Winston and Yasa) are the hemisphere’s strongest ever storms. Prime Minister Bainimarama and others cite climate change as a large contributing factor to the uptick in incidence and severity of cyclones in the region.
Compounding recovery from the storm is the fallout from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite only reporting a small number of COVID-19 cases, the Fijian economy is suffering due to the protracted halt on international travel. Tourism and travel previously accounted for 34 percent of the nation’s GDP and employed 40,000 people, accounting for a quarter of the workforce. By mid-2020 one third of tourism workers in the country had lost their jobs or had their hours cut. Ultimately the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many into poverty thus making the recovery from Cyclone Yasa an even more uphill battle.
Radio NZ reports that the Red Cross will distribute $140,000 worth of supplies over the next month in the worst affected areas. The Cyclone has since veered south, away from the Fijian islands; however, a heavy rain warning and flash flood advisory remain in effect for parts of neighboring Tonga.