Yasa would “easily surpass” the strength of cyclone Winston in 2016, he added, referring to the southern hemisphere’s most intense tropical storm on record, which killed more than 40 people and left tens of thousands of people homeless.
About 850,000 Fijians, or 95 per cent of the population, live in the direct path of Yasa, said Bainimarama, adding that weather forecasts anticipated flash flooding and “severe coastal inundation” that included waves up to 10 metres high.
Police would enforce a ban on public transport, said the country’s National Disaster Management Office, which added that the country had declared a “state of natural disaster” which gives law enforcement authorities increased powers.
By 8pm on Thursday, the centre of Yasa was forecast to be 100km east of the village of Yasawa-i-Rara and potentially over Fiji’s fifth-most populous province of Bua, home to 15,000 people, the office said.
Yasa is the first severe tropical cyclone of the season but the second to strike during the COVID-19 pandemic, after Harold tore through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in April.
The aid agency CARE said it had the potential to be catastrophic for Fiji, an island nation already grappling with the loss of tourism income.
CARE spokesperson Stefan Knollmayer said: “The predicted path, speed and strength looks like the worst case scenario as it cuts across the centre of Fiji, hitting both the mainland and islands groups to the east and west.
“Although Fiji has managed to avoid significant outbreaks of COVID-19, this year has already been economically and socially devastating given tourism employs so many people, especially women. A cyclone like this could be a double disaster for Fiji.
Kathryn Clarkson, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Suva, said in a statement that some of the same communities in the path of Yasa have been hit by five big cyclones in as many years.