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Fiji hammered by strongest cyclone ever in Southern Hemisphere

Cyclone Winston was the first Category 5 tropical cyclone ever to hit Fiji, and by Saturday afternoon had maximum winds peaking at 185 mph.

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    Cyclone Winston hammers Fiji with 185 mph winds.
    U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center
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Residents of Fiji hunkered down Saturday as a ferocious cyclone tore through the Pacific island chain, prompting authorities to impose a nationwide curfew and declare a monthlong state of disaster.

Cyclone Winston not only was the first-ever Category 5 tropical cyclone to hit Fiji, but by Saturday afternoon local time, it had become the strongest tropical cyclone on record in the Southern Hemisphere with maximum winds peaking at 185 mph, as estimated by the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center, according toColorado State University tropical scientist, Dr. Phil Klotzbach.

Wind speeds from Cyclone Winston were peaking at 185 miles per hour. The cyclone was tracking late Saturday along the northern coast of the main island, Viti Levu.

Fiji's capital, Suva, located in the southern part of the main island, was experiencing high winds but was not directly in the cyclone's path. The popular tourist resorts in Viti Levu's west, however, were closer to the cyclone's center.

Flights were canceled and authorities urged people to find somewhere safe to hunker down for the night and to not venture outside. A nationwide curfew was imposed at 6 p.m.

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama wrote on Facebook on Saturday that the island's evacuation centers were operational and that the government was prepared to deal with a potential crisis.

"As a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind," he wrote. "We must stick together as a people and look after each other."

He said he was concerned some people in the cities weren't taking the threat seriously enough.

The government declared a state of natural disaster for 30 days, giving extra powers to police to arrest people without a warrant in the interest of public safety.

The Fiji Times newspaper reported that some homes had had their roofs blown away and that five people had managed to swim to safety after their boat capsized.

The Times said there had been a run on supermarkets and stores as people stocked up on essential supplies before the cyclone hit.

Weather.com senior meteorologist Jonathan Erdman notes that it's fairly rare for a tropical cyclone to hit the country's capital city.

"According to NOAA's Historical Hurricane Tracks database, only 12 tropical cyclones of at least Category 1 equivalent intensity have tracked within 100 miles of Fiji's capital and largest city, Suva, since 1972," said Erdman. "The last one to do so was Evan, just over a week before Christmas 2012."

He also tweeted out a chart showing the bizarre path of this cyclone. 

Fiji is home to about 900,000 people.

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