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Cyclones (hurricanes and typhoons to those in the northern hemisphere) are unpredictable by their nature, and it pays to be prepared. If you're traveling to Fiji between the months of November and April, it's important to know the meaning behind "cyclone watch" and "cyclone warning" – this could be the difference between being prepared to evacuate and evacuating immediately.
Fiji has a decent history of cyclones, with many causing widespread destruction and displacing thousands from their homes.
The 2015–2016 cyclone season was the deadliest on record. 50 people lost their lives and billions of dollars of damage spread across several pacific nations such as Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and others. Fiji bore the brunt of that season, with Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston smashing into the Fiji islands in 2016, packing winds in excess of 155mph. 44 people lost their lives and $1.4 billion USD in damage was caused. With vital infrastructure and services down across the islands, a state of emergency was declared by the Fijian government. Rated at Category 5, Winston was the deadliest cyclone recorded in Fiji's modern history.
Luckily, Fiji is well prepared for cyclones. There are community shelters and major resorts have solidly-built substantial buildings. The problem comes with the smaller resorts on the outer islands. The timber and palm-fringed buildings have loads of charm, but they‘re not where you want to be when a big storm comes through. If the staff tell you its time to leave and go back to the mainland, they mean it. Always follow the instructions of the locals or your accommodation staff.
If you are on a smaller island, plan to evacuate to the mainland as soon as it is confirmed the island is in the firing line of the cyclone. Small planes and ferries may not operate in severe weather, including weather leading up to the cyclone hitting. It may be worth buying a flexible/refundable plane ticket should you get stuck.
Most of the damage from a cyclone comes not from the strong winds, but the floods. Sometimes the tropical depression doesn‘t quite make it to cyclone strength, but it brings enough torrential rain to soak the islands and cause rivers to burst their banks. This is where most of Fiji‘s disease problems come from. It‘s hard to build a sewage system which can handle 150mm (6 inches) of rain in six hours.
It‘s important to check with local media and keep an eye on weather reports. There are a few stages in the warning system, and you should understand them if you're traveling to a tropical destination.
A Tropical Depression is the first sign a cyclone might form. The depression may become a storm with wind speeds of 40 to 73 mph. If it worsens further, it may be declared a cyclone, and given a name. There are 5 categories of cyclone with 1 being the weakest (wind speeds 55 – 78 mph) to category 5 (wind speeds greater than 155 mph).
The Fiji Meteorological Service and MetService New Zealand monitor all cyclone activity in the Pacific with assistance from Australia and the United States. Meteorologists will draw up what they call a five-day forecast cone. This is a map of where they think the cyclone could be over the next five days, and the areas that could be affected by storm strength winds. It‘s shaped like a cone because the exact path is unpredictable.
If you are told there‘s a cyclone watch on your position, it means gale force winds are expected within 48 hours, but not within 24 hours.
Cyclone warning means the gale-force winds will be on you within 24 hours, or are already happening.
Okay, that‘s the bad stuff about cyclones, but the effects can be surprisingly localised. In 2010 as Tomas raged to the north-east of Viti Levu, to the north-west and just 205mi (330km) from the eye of the storm, the Plantation Island resort in the Yasawa and Mamanuca group said they had one brief rain shower, a breezy day, a calm lagoon and 300 guests continuing to enjoy their holiday.
Being well-informed means you‘re less likely to over-react. But remember, if you don‘t feel comfortable with the situation, make the decision to leave as early as possible. There‘s nothing worse than checking out of your hotel and then being stranded when the airport is closed by bad weather.
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