25 Oct 2023

Tropical Cyclone Lola: Vanuatu on high alert as storm makes landfall on northern island

11:49 am on 25 October 2023
Tropical Cyclone Lola over Vanuatu as seen in satellite imagery at 11am (NZ time) on 25 October, 2023.

Tropical Cyclone Lola over Vanuatu as seen in satellite imagery at 11am (NZ time) on 25 October, 2023. Photo: Supplied / Vanuatu Meteorology

Tropical cyclone Lola has cut off communications with the Penama province since last night as it makes landfall on the northern islands, says Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai.

Severe tropical cyclone Lola has dropped to category 3 strength with average winds close to the centre at 150km/h, gusting up to 205km/h, according to Vanuatu's metservice.

But with the communications cut off, it was hard to know what the impact had been on those islands at this stage, Salwai told Morning Report.

On-site teams would be reporting back on conditions today, he said.

Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) has activated offices in six provinces, ready to carry out a rapid assessment after the cyclone.

The capital, Port Vila, is on red alert and all government offices, markets, and banks are closed until further notice.

The centre of the cyclone is moving away from Pentecost Island to Malekula, Fiji Metservice expects it to make landfall around 10am local time on Wednesday.

Salwai said he felt there had been sufficient warning for people to shelter from Lola but it was still going to still be "very hard" for people.

Vanuatu has been hit by large cyclones in the past including cyclone Pam in 2015 which was the second most intense tropical cyclone in the South Pacific.

In March, the country was thrashed by severe back-to-back cyclones Judy and Kevin.

"Many of the houses, especially schools are not yet repaired, the schools are still operating in temporary shelters," Salwai said.

"This year, we have had three cyclones, two in the beginning of the year, Kevin and Judy, that almost affected all the islands in the country and again here, so we've just started to recover."

He expected the country would need help in the form of temporary shelters and food but said it would depend on an assessment after Lola had left the country.

RNZ Pacific correspondent Hilaire Bule, who is in Port Vila, said he was sent photos Tuesday night from Torba province of fallen trees and destroyed homes.

He said the province was getting sea surges.

At 6am local time, Bule said gale force winds had started. People have been putting concrete blocks on the roofs of their homes to stop it being ripped off from the strong winds.

Like the prime minister, he was concerned about the remaining damage from Kevin and Judy.

"We're still facing the damage of Kevin and Judy, we haven't got any food, such as bananas and pawpaw.

"If we face Lola, I don't know what will happen."

Bula said the country used to get fruit from Malekula and Santo but now he was uncertain if that would continue.

Bula said he had tried calling through to Malekula and Pentecost Wednesday morning but was unable to get through.

The three cyclones hitting the country so far this year was an indication of climate change, Salwai said.

Lola downgraded to a category 3

At 8.01am local time Wednesday, severe tropical cyclone Lola was about 75km east southeast of Malekula and 40km north northwest of Epi, the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazards Department said in its latest warning.

Winds close to the centre are estimated at 130km/h, gusting up to 205km/h within 38 Nautical miles from the centre of the system and expected to affect the Islands of Penama, Malampa and Shefa in the next 24 hours.

With destructive hurricane force winds of 185km/h gusting to 265km/h are expected to affect Penama, Malampa and Shefa in the next 24hrs.

Destructive storm force winds of 145km/h gusting to 205km/h are within 60 Nautical miles from the centre of the system and will affect Penama, Malampa and Shefa later on Wednesday.

Damaging gale force winds 93km/h with gusting to 105km/h are between 40 to 100 Nautical miles from the centre of the system will continue to affect Penama, Malampa and Shefa provinces as well on Wednesday.

NIWA principal scientist, Chris Brandolino told Morning Report tropical cyclones tend to accelerate once they move out of the tropics.

While it has peaked in intensity, significant impacts could still be expected, even beyond the centre, he said.

"It will continue to weaken ... and that weakening trend will continue as it approaches New Caledonia say by Friday midday or sometime on Friday."

Why is this tropical cyclone earlier than the usual season?

The season for tropical cyclones starts in November and goes to April in the Southern Hemisphere.

But Brandolino said modelling of the climate conditions this time of the year suggested an intense one could form.

"There were indications that category five tropical cyclones could occur, because they occured in years with similar conditions that we see now in terms of the overall climate, the overall conditions with the ocean and the atmosphere."

The average number of tropical cyclones during the season in the southwest Pacific region was nine, but the outlook was normal to above normal, with nine to 14 being possible, Brandolino said.

Brandolino said it was not clear what, if any, impacts the cyclone would have on New Zealand.

While Lola is weakening, cyclones can often experience a second life if they interact with another weather system.

"So there is a separate weather system forecast to move from the south and west over the Tasman sea, and it will interact with this tropical moisture, produce a new low, somewhere over the northern Tasman Sea or northeastern Tasman Sea.

"There is a chance we could see rain and winds for parts of the country. The jury is still out in terms of what, if any, impact that will have on Aotearoa New Zealand but it's certainly in the discussion."

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