Category 5 Cyclone Harold strengthens in Pacific, lashing Vanuatu

The cyclone is now packing winds of up to 235kph, prompting red alerts across several provinces

PORT VILA • A deadly Pacific cyclone intensified as it hit Vanuatu yesterday, threatening a natural disaster that experts fear will undermine the impoverished nation’s battle to remain corona-virus-free.

Tropical Cyclone Harold, which claimed 27 lives when it swept through the Solomon Islands last week, strengthened to a scale-topping Category 5 superstorm overnight, Vanuatu’s meteorology service said.

The cyclone is now packing winds of up to 235kph, prompting red alerts across several provinces.

It made landfall on the remote east coast of Espiritu Santo island yesterday morning and was heading directly for Vanuatu’s second-largest town Luganville, which has a population of 16,500. The slow-moving storm is expected to pass north of the capital Port Vila early tomorrow.

“For now, we don’t have any reports of injury, but lots of damage,” Red Cross Vanuatu secretary general Jacqueline de Gaillande told AFP.

Another concern is the impact a arge natural disaster could have on Vanuatu’s attempts to remain one of the world’s few countries without any reported Covid-19 infections.

The nation has sealed its international borders to avoid the virus but emergency measures including bans on public meetings have been temporarily suspended so people can gather in evacuation centres.

A major international relief effort was needed the last time a Category 5 system, Cyclone Pam, hit Vanuatu in 2015.

If a similar operation were needed in the wake of Cyclone Harold, it would run the risk of importing the virus to a nation that lacks the health infrastructure to deal with even a mild outbreak.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised concerns about the cyclone and said the Kiwi military is ready to deploy if needed, even though New Zealand is on Covid-19 lockdown. “(Harold) looks like it’s coming into the Pacific with considerable force,” she told reporters.

“Our defence force is at the ready, that’s the role they play regardless of what’s going on in New Zealand.”

Cyclone Pam flattened Port Vila, killed 11 people and left a swath of destruction that the World Bank estimated wiped out almost two- thirds of Vanuatu’s economic capacity.

De Gaillande said Vanuatu’s government could face a balancing act between helping cyclone-devastated communities and potentially importing the virus by allowing in international aid.

Cyclone Harold has already caused widespread damage in the Solomon Islands, where an inter-island ferry ignored weather warnings and 27 people were washed off its decks.

Solomons police said on Sunday that the bodies of five passengers from the MV Taimareho had been recovered. The ferry, set off from Honiara for Malaita island last Thursday night, packed with more than 700 people as part of a government evacuation programme in response to the virus crisis. — AFP