Domestic ships washed ashore on Santo Island, Vanuatu. Photo: Ryry Titus, Vanuatu Daily Post

Vanuatu has been pummelled by Cyclone Harold, which is expected to move southwest of Fiji in the next 48 hours. Teuila Fuatai tracks its course across a Pacific already battened down against Covid-19.

Physical distancing measures were lifted and hundreds reportedly took shelter in emergency centres as Cyclone Harold bore down on Vanuatu’s largest island Espiritu Santo on Monday.

The category-five tropical cyclone made landfall on the island in the afternoon, bringing winds of more than 200km/h and lashing rain. In the preceding days, its approach caused flooding and widespread destruction of crops, prompting evacuations of vulnerable areas on Santo.

Harold is the worst storm to hit Vanuatu since 2015’s deadly Cyclone Pam. With the backdrop of a global pandemic, authorities have also had to rethink public health measures under the country’s Covid-19 state of emergency.

Abraham Nasak, director of the National Disaster Management Office, confirmed on Sunday that physical distancing was not a priority, as people sought shelter from Harold.

“The rules about social gatherings don’t apply right now because people need to be moving to safe shelters and evacuation centres to hide from the cyclone,” Nasak said via social media.

By Monday afternoon, the full force of the cyclone had also reached Santo’s main town of Luganville, population 16,000 – the country’s second largest centre after capital Port Vila.

Peter Patty, Luganville’s lord Mayor, spoke to media outlet Islands Business during the height of the storm. He was unsure how communities would navigate the damage from the cyclone alongside the Covid-19 crisis. Vanuatu is among several Pacific nations yet to identify any virus cases, however it has implemented a raft of precautionary measures, including closure of its borders.

“This is one of the worst crises – to experience a cyclone in the middle of a pandemic that we have yet to recover from,” Patty said. “My biggest fear now is how can we rebuild and revive businesses back to normal.”

Another government official stationed in Santo also highlighted the difficulties Covid-19 posed for disaster resourcing.

“[Cyclone Harold] is unpredictable and I must say there was less preparation as to how we can prepare for a tropical cyclone because much focus was on COVID-19,” Kensly Micah of the NDMO told Islands Business.

In Port Vila, MPs and officials continued to wait for comprehensive damage reports from the northern islands.

Ronald Warsal, a minister in the current caretaker government (results of Vanuatu’s general election held last month were announced last night) and MP for Luganville, told RNZ Pacific that communication with Santo had been patchy, but initial reports indicated serious damage. 

“We don’t know the extent of the damage, but I’m pretty sure there is [going to] be a lot of damage, because a lot of the buildings are semi-permanent. The country is really in a difficult time, I’ll put it that way,” he said.

Nearby, Solomon Islands police have spent days searching for missing ferry passengers from the MV Taimareho. The boat left the capital Honiara on Friday morning with 738 passengers and hit rough seas caused by Harold. The packed vessel had been among several to depart in the past week as residents returned to their home villages following government advice about the country’s Covid-19 state of emergency.

Like Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands have no reported cases of the virus. However, strict public health and travel precautions have been implemented as part of its response.

Police yesterday said 27 people were missing from the MV Taimareho. Five bodies have been found.

Meanwhile, Fiji is preparing for possible bad weather from Harold on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Fiji has more than 100 checkpoints for Covid-19 response. Photo: Fiji Police. 

The country’s meteorological agency said while Monday evening’s weather maps indicated the cyclone would track southwest of Fiji, heavy rain and gale force winds were possible for the Yasawa and Mamanuca island groups, the south-west of Viti Levu and Kadavu.

It also offered a message of solidarity for Vanuatu as reports emerged of the severity of Harold throughout Monday: “Please keep our friends and families in Vanuatu in our prayers,” the agency said.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama also included mention of the cyclone while announcing the country’s latest Covid-19 figures on Monday. He said two new cases had been confirmed, which brought the national total to 14. He also indicated the lockdown around Lautoka would likely be reduced after contact tracing showed containment of the wider area was not needed.

Suva and Soasoa remain sealed off from the rest of the country because of case clusters.

“We cannot allow severe weather to jeopardise our life-saving game plan to lock this virus down,” Bainimarama said. “We are preparing to face two crises at once – the only way we beat both is if every Fijian adheres closely to the directives from authorities.”

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