Deadly tropical cyclone leaves trail of damage across Fiji islands

Deadly tropical cyclone leaves trail of damage across Fiji islands
·6 min read

Despite being spared a direct hit from Tropical Cyclone Harold, the island of Fiji suffered extensive damage from high winds, heavy rain and a battering storm surge at midweek.

The monster storm lashed the Vanuatu Islands Monday into Tuesday as it charged eastward, battering the small islands, which are situated about 1,500 miles east of Australia's northeast coast, with fierce winds and heavy rains as it made landfall.

Harold, which AccuWeather meteorologists have been monitoring for over a week, formed on Thursday, April 2, local time, in the Coral Sea before heading east toward the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The Solomon Islands were the first to be blasted by the strengthening cyclone over the weekend. The Solomon Island Herald reported on Monday that at least six people were killed, and their bodies recovered, after a ferry with 27 people on board encountered dangerous seas stirred by the cyclone.

The Royal Solomon Island Police Force urged all small craft remain out of the water as the dangerous seas persisted on Monday.

The center of Harold is seen passing just south of Fiji on Wednesday afternoon, local time. (AccuWeather)

On Monday, local time, Harold reached its peak intensity with wind speeds of 165 mph (265 km/h) as it crossed the northern islands of Vanuatu. Winds of this speed made Harold a Category 5 cyclone on the Fiji scale and equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic and East Pacific oceans.

Harold was downgraded to a Category 4 cyclone on Tuesday, but it remained a dangerous storm.

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"Communications to Santo and Malekula [Vanuatu's two largest islands] are cut now, so we don't know what's happening," said Eric Durpaire, the chief of Vanuatu's field office for UNICEF Pacific, over the phone from the country's capital of Port Vila, according to The Guardian. He added that the roof of the municipality building on Santo collapsed, and there was also flooding damage.

No deaths have been reported thus far from Harold in Vanuatu; however, with communication down in some of the hardest-hit areas, it may be days before the public is made aware of the extent of the damage.

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Farther away from the eye of the cyclone, outer rain bands pounded the southern islands of Vanuatu. Rainfall on the island of Aneityum reached 166 mm (6.5 inches) on Monday night.

Tropical Cyclone Harold plows through Vanuatu on Monday, April 6, 2020, as seen on infrared satellite.This image captured Harold when it was near peak strength. (NOAA / CIRA)

The International Federation of the Red Cross shared "devastating images" from parts of Vanuatu that were walloped by Harold.

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Vanuatu is one of the few countries in the world that, as of Monday, still has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to The Guardian. The country is closed to international travelers and has also enacted curfews and banned gatherings of more than five people. In order for residents to evacuate and receive help following Harold, some of these restrictions have been temporarily lifted.

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On Tuesday, Vanuatu revoked their domestic travel ban, and Air Vanuatu announced that domestic passenger flights would resume on Friday.

After battering Vanuatu, Harold passed just south of Fiji at midweek. Ahead of the cyclone, Fiji Airways moved several aircraft overseas to avoid damage, according to the Fijian Broadcasting Corporation.

Fiji's National Disaster Management Office announced evacuation orders on Tuesday afternoon, local time, asking those in low-lying areas to move to higher ground ahead of Harold.

Early reports coming out of Fiji state that popular tourist destinations on the island have suffered heavy damage from the cyclone's storm surge and high winds as well as by the king tide that followed the storm.

Power outages and road closures have also been reported across the region.

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The Fiji National Disaster Management Office is urging residents to stay indoors for their own safety.

The Fiji Times reported that around nine homes were damaged by a possible tornado within the cyclone's rain bands.

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The National Disaster Management Office in Fiji activated more than 250 evacuation centers in preparation of the cyclone, according to Radio New Zealand.

Over six thousand evacuees are still taking shelter in different evacuation centers, according to FBC News.

On Wednesday, the New Zealand Air Force sent a plane to survey the damage across Vanuatu and Fiji. This aerial view offered some of the first images of the widespread damage caused by Harold. Another plane followed carrying aid supplies.

Sigatoka, Fiji, reported 103 mm (4.06 inches) of rainfall on Wednesday and Ono-I-Lau, Fiji, recorded wind speeds of 115 km/h (71 mph). Kaduva Island stopped reporting winds before the strongest moved through the area.

Conditions will rapidly improve across Fiji into late in the week as Harold tracks to the southeast toward Tonga. Tonga's government has declared a state of emergency ahead of Harold's arrival.

On Wednesday night, Harold restrengthened into a Category 5 tropical cyclone with winds estimated around 204 km/h (127 mph) as it continued to track toward the small island nation. This is equivalent to a moderate Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic and East Pacific oceans.

Harold is forecast to gradually weaken as the storm continues on a southeasterly track and is not expected to impact land.

These islands in the South Pacific are no stranger to influences from tropical cyclones, with a cyclone season that runs from November to April each year. The 2015-2016 was the deadliest on record, with 50 deaths attributed to cyclones that impacted islands of the region, including Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Tropical Cyclone Pam was the last Severe Tropical Cyclone to hit Vanuatu, back in 2015, according to Steven Bowen, a meteorologist who works for Aon, a risk management firm. Over $380 million in damages (2020 USD) was reported from that storm.

Keep checking back on AccuWeather.com and stay tuned to the AccuWeather Network on DirecTV, Frontier and Verizon Fios.

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