Tropical Cyclone Winston grinds over Fiji

Posted at 8:31 AM, Feb 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-20 08:31:02-05

(CNN) — Tropical Cyclone Winston has made landfall on the island of Viti Levu in Fiji, said CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam.

The storm, which is the most powerful ever to hit the island nation, was tracked moving through the narrow waterway ocean in between the country’s main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

“Batten down the hatches. It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Van Dam said.

Electricity gone

The capital city, Suva, is without electricity, according to The Fiji Times.

Tropical Cyclone Winston was packing winds of 180 mph with gusts over 220 mph — the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane — according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

“The assault,” as Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama put it, has already begun.

“As a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” Bainimarama said. “We must stick together as a people and look after each other.”

Strongest storm

It is the strongest storm on record to make a direct hit on the main islands, which are home to a majority of Fiji’s 900,000 people and are smaller than Connecticut.

Warnings from the Tropical Cyclone Center in Fiji caution that destructive wind gusts from Winston could reach up to 225 mph, in addition to damaging rough seas and coastal flooding.

The eye wall of the storm has started to deteriorate — which means landfall has occurred, said Van Dam. However the storm is expected to intensify again after it moves away from the island, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

“With a direct hit like this, we would expect the strongest of winds to occur when that eye wall passed over land, he said.

Mudslide danger

Flooding is also a major concern.

“This is a mountainous nation, and that means any heavy rainfall will filter down to the lower elevations — meaning landslides, mudslides and flooding,” Van Dam said.

The government imposed a curfew starting at 6 p.m. local time, a statement from the country’s disaster management said.

Prime Minister Bainimarama said that the government is “thoroughly prepared to deal with this crisis.”

State of emergency

The government has declared a state of emergency that will be in effect for the next 30 days, The Fiji Times reported.

The tropical cyclone season in this region of the South Pacific runs from November 1 to April 30. Activity for the season is expected to be above average due to the ongoing record El Niño, which has brought above-average water temperatures to much of the Pacific.

Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, has had fewer than 10 direct hits from storms at or above hurricane intensity (sustained winds of 75 mph or greater), according to NOAA. Tropical Cyclone Evan, which struck the island in December 2012, had maximum winds of 145 mph, causing major damage but no fatalities.