7 Apr 2020

Cyclone Harold: Reports of destruction emerge, assessments begin

11:53 am on 7 April 2020

Reports of extensive damage are emerging from parts of Vanuatu struck by Cyclone Harold yesterday, but communication with much of the battered region is proving difficult.

Winds in excess of 230km/h tore across the country's northern and central islands, and heavy rain has damaged many roads and food gardens.

Roof ripped off house by Cyclone Harold

Roof ripped off house by Cyclone Harold Photo: VBTC

The cyclone, still a category five, is slowly moving away from the country towards Fiji, providing an opportunity for assessment flights to begin.

Phone communication is down to many affected islands - Maewo, Pentecost, Ambae, rural Santo, and others - which sustained the cyclone's full force overnight.

On Santo, where Harold first made landfall yesterday, damage is understood to be extensive.

Already, pictures sent from the region have told a grim tale; a large ship shunted ashore by ferocious waves; palm trees splintered and stripped of colour; rivers spilling over banks and into villages, forcing residents to flee in the backs of utes; roofing iron being thrown across towns.

In Santo's main town, Luganville, a local MP, Matai Seremaiah, said initial reports suggested about 50 to 70 percent of buildings in the town were damaged, with hundreds sheltering in evacuation centres.

"Power is down, there are problems with water, and I think there are dire needs now for shelter systems," Mr Sermaiah told RNZ Pacific from Port Vila, the capital, which was largely unaffected.

"It's bad. It's really bad."

Luganville has been cut off from the wider Santo area by flooding, landslides and debris. Some reports from the southwest corner of Santo, where the cyclone made first landfall, indicate severe damage, but communication is yet to be made with much of the island.

Mr Seremaiah said he had managed to speak briefly with someone in the Big Bay area on satellite phone. They reported a grim tale.

Agriculture Minister, Matai Seremaiah

Agriculture Minister, Matai Seremaiah Photo: Vanuatu Govt

"All the shops are damaged, they can't move at the moment because all the rivers are overflowing, the crops are really damaged," he said.

"We also haven't got any reports from the outer islands which the cyclone went over last night."

Mr Seremaiah said assessment flights will hopefully be able to start later today as the cyclone moves away, but it's likely significant assistance would be needed.

A spokesperson for Vanuatu's caretaker prime minister, Charlot Salwai, said the council of ministers would be meeting today to decide the government's next steps, and a decision would be made on whether to ask for international help.

That would involve relaxing the country's border restrictions, with the country effectively sealed off under a state of emergency to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to Vanuatu.

Cyclone Harold has destroyed buildings and trees across Santo and Pentecost

Cyclone Harold has destroyed buildings and trees across Santo and Pentecost Photo: VBTC