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Counting costs: Fiji’s Cyclone Yasa, by the numbers

Storms don't have to cause catastrophic damage to destabilise communities.

Interior view of a destroyed house in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasa in Nasavu, Bua Province, Fiji on 18 December 2020.
Interior view of a destroyed house in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasa in Nasavu, Bua Province, Fiji on 18 December 2020. (Miriama Nakauvadra/via REUTERS )

Relief efforts are underway in Fiji after Cyclone Yasa slammed into the Pacific Island nation with winds of 240 kilometres per hour. 

Yasa made landfall on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, on 17 December, leaving what Fiji’s Red Cross called a “devastating trail of destruction”. Early photos from parts of the island show flattened homes and damaged crops.

The government warns casualties may rise as damage reports emerge from remote islands. On Friday, it had recorded two deaths, including a three-month-old baby. Damages are expected to total hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yasa was the first Category 5 storm to strike Fiji since 2016’s catastrophic Cyclone Winston – April’s supercharged Cyclone Harold, which caused extensive damage in neighbouring Vanuatu, weakened before reaching parts of Fiji.

Here’s a by-the-numbers rundown looking at Yasa’s impacts and what may be a long – and expensive – recovery:

93,000

That’s how many people were in Cyclone Yasa’s direct path. It may seem small compared to disasters in bigger countries, but it adds up to more than 10 percent of Fiji’s entire population. 

Storms like Yasa don't have to cause catastrophic damage to destabilise communities. Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, was nominally out of Yasa’s path, but heavy rains and winds sparked severe flooding and crop damage in its northern areas. 

Since crops are the main food and income source for Fiji’s farmers, some families worry about shortages, or that they won’t be able to pay upcoming bills and school fees. 

“It has really affected them now on how they can provide food for their families,” said Fane Boseiwaqa, who works for Women’s Weather Watch, a network that promotes disaster preparedness among rural women.

24,000

That’s how many people were in official evacuation centres – 23,479, to be precise – as of Friday. This is on top of many more sheltering in churches and schools.

Disaster preparedness is top of mind for many in Fiji after 2016’s Cyclone Winston, which churned up $1 billion in damages. Winston caught some communities by surprise, partly because it appeared to veer away from Fiji before doubling back and trampling over Viti Levu and smaller islands.

This time around, evacuation warnings came early as Cyclone Yasa approached, and many communities headed to shelters hours before the storm’s evening landfall.

31.3 percent

That’s how high Fiji’s poverty rate could reach in 2021 due to COVID-19, according to a UN study – from roughly a quarter of the population before the pandemic to nearly a third.

Coronavirus infections are low in most Pacific nations, but the economic fallout has been universal. UNICEF warns Yasa will “deal another blow to the economy”, on top of regular drought and floods that hit parts of Fiji through the year.

130 km/h in 36 hours

That’s how much Cyclone Yasa’s wind speeds intensified in a short stretch before landfall. 

Climate change isn't necessarily producing more storms, but it is making them more volatile and destructive. Rapidly intensifying winds are a part of this. Yasa’s wind speeds jumped 130 km/h in 36 hours, NASA reported – more than double the threshold meteorologists use to measure this.

300

That’s roughly how many islands comprise Fiji – about a third of them are populated. Long distances complicate disaster response and slow early damage assessments, as many communities are on isolated islands accessible only by sea.

While Fiji and other island nations may not register on lists of countries most affected by disasters because of their small populations, the stats are reversed when counting per capita casualties or damage.

Countries like Dominica, the Bahamas, and Fiji’s oceanic neighbour, Samoa, recorded among the highest disaster casualties per million in the last 20 years, according to an October report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. “Absolute death tolls are not the best measures to understand the relative impact” of disasters, the agency said.

16 December 2012

That’s the date Cyclone Evan struck Fiji – nearly eight years to the day before Cyclone Yasa.

Yasa was at least the 12th storm to make landfall since Evan. “This is not normal,” Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, said in a statement as Yasa approached. “This is a climate emergency.”

il/ag

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