6 Apr 2020

Cyclone Harold updates: Storm makes landfall on Vanuatu's Santo

5:16 pm on 6 April 2020

Cyclone Harold, the most powerful storm in the Pacific in at least two years, has made landfall on the Vanuatu island of Santo, with winds gusting as high as 235km/h.

Cyclone Harold - a category five, the highest possible - has sat just to the west of Vanuatu's central islands for much of the past day, gathering significant strength in the past 12 hours.

Already there is widespread flooding in Vanuatu as Cyclone Harold nears.

Already there is widespread flooding in Vanuatu as Cyclone Harold nears. Photo: VBTC

On Monday afternoon, just after 1pm, local time, it made landfall on Santo's southwestern coast, and is forecast to continue on a track that takes it very close to Luganville, the country's second-largest town with a population of more than 16,000 people.

Fred Jockley, a managing forecaster at the Vanuatu Meteorological Service, said this storm was the most serious since Cyclone Pam, which destroyed much of the country in 2015, killing few people, but setting livelihoods, infrastructure and the economy back years.

Mr Jockley said Harold was displaying the signs no one wanted to see: it had effectively stalled, moving as slow as two knots, which allows it to suck up moisture from the warm ocean and gain ferocity; it was growing in size, and its force would likely envelop much of Santo and Malekula, Vanuatu's two largest islands; and its current track had it skirting very close to Luganville, the country's second-largest city with more than 16,000 people.

"It's very slow now. It's been very slow the past six hours, but now it's beginning to pick up speed," Mr Jockley told RNZ Pacific. "It's going to go through Santo and Malekula."

"The winds range is covering the whole of Santo and part of northern Malekula."

Hundreds of people across Santo had already sought shelter in evacuation centres, and flooding has been reported in many areas. On Monday morning, authorities evacuated people from remote areas where rivers had burst their banks into villages. Communication has since been lost with areas outside Luganville.

The official number of people in evacuation centres is so far unknown.

Forecast tracking map for Tropical Cyclone Harold

Forecast tracking map for Tropical Cyclone Harold Photo: Fiji Meteorological Service

"We're expecting more rainfall and flooding to continue over Luganville and Malekula, even extending to Penama and Torba," Mr Jockley said.

Cyclone Harold comes at the worst possible time for Vanuatu. The country was under a state of emergency because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the country's borders sealed, and mass gatherings of more than a few people banned.

Yesterday, the government relaxed its conditions as the country contends with dual emergencies, allowing people to travel to seek shelter, and to congregate in evacuation centres. Vanuatu is yet to confirm any cases of the coronavirus.

5:15 pm: 'Worst possible time'

A caretaker government minister and MP for Luganville, Ronald Warsal, said Cyclone Harold has come at the worst possible time for Vanuatu.

Mr Warsal, who is currently in the capital Port Vila, said communication with Santo was proving difficult, but he had heard reports of extensive damage, particularly in the southwestern corner of the island, where Cyclone Harold made first impact early this afternoon.

"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," Mr Warsal said in a phone interview.

He added that it was a difficult time in terms of response: the government is in caretaker mode after last month's election, a State of Emergency because of the coronavirus has seen shops closed, interisland ferries cancelled, and flights grounded, and now it's been hit by the worst cyclone in five years.

Harold struck on the day the results of last month's general election last month are due to be announced.

Already, the four-yearly election has been hampered by delays - ballot boxes were delayed reaching some areas because of storms, the electoral commissioner died breaking the quorum needed to count, which was then done via live stream because Covid-19 restrictions banned gatherings of more than five people. Now, there's a cyclone.

"The country is really in a difficult time, I'll put it that way," Mr Warsal said.

After the announcement of the final results tonight, Mr Warsal said it was likely parliament would be recalled in some form as soon as possible to deal with the cyclone's aftermath.

3:00 pm: Cyclone Harold makes landfall

Cyclone Harold is starting to bear down on the Vanuatu island of Santo, with hundreds of people already in evacuation centres.

The cyclone, a category five, is passing right over Santo, with winds at its centre as high as 235 km/h.

In Luganville, a town of 16-thousand people, roofs have been blown off houses, trees snapped, and its council building has been destroyed.

The town is cut off from the rest of the island by widespread flooding and landslides, and communication is proving difficult, with many calls not connecting.

12:20pm: Hundreds in evacuation centres, Santo braces for impact

Vanuatu's second town of Luganville is normally a bustling port town on a crystal bay at the southern end of the country's biggest island, Santo. On Tuesday it sat abandoned, shops closed, houses boarded up, the sky a thunderous black, the sea a choppy grey.

Roof of Luganville town hall blown off

Roof of Luganville town hall blown off Photo: Petro Aymar and Osy Rarua.

Kensley Micah, the lead disaster official for Sanma province, which includes Luganville, said the island was bracing for a direct hit from Cyclone Harold later on Monday evening, and hundreds across the province had already sought shelter in evacuation centres.

As he spoke to RNZ Pacific from Luganville, a town of 16,000 people on Monday morning, Mr Micah said conditions were deteriorating rapidly.

"The wind is very strong this morning and getting stronger, with rain. All shops in towns are closed. We also have electricity cut off, and we have water cuts everywhere," Mr Micah said.

"Luganville now is facing a lot of challenges."

Things were already in tough in Santo. The island has been lashed by torrential rain for days, as the cyclone crawled closer, and then stalled about 100km off the western coast. Already, crops have been washed out and roads cut off. There were concerns fresh water supplies had been tainted.

Overnight, hundreds of people sought shelter in evacuation centres as some of the island's larger rivers burst their banks, flooding houses. "There's more rain, there's a lot of flooding in the low-lying area," Mr Micah said.

He said he couldn't give a figure on how many people were in evacuation centres, as communication with rural areas outside of Luganville was proving difficult. An official at the Vanuatu Red Cross, Augustine Garae, told RNZ Pacific it could be as many as 1,000 people.

"It's really hard to get into the rural areas," Mr Micah said. "There is flooding everywhere, with roads blocked and things like that. We have communication problems; we can't get in touch with people from the area councils. Right now, we don't get any information from the rural communities."

For now, it was a case of hunkering down and waiting out the storm, which was due to make landfall in Santo at 5pm, with winds near its centre gusting as high as 235km/h. The whole 4,000-square kilometre island would experience winds well in excess of 120km/h.

As soon as that passed, Mr Micah said his teams were ready to mobilise. But it's likely help would be needed.

"From my opinion, it looks like most people will lose their food crops, so I think the government might have to step in to provide some kind of food supply."

1:25 pm: Harold starts to bear down; damage reports emerge

In Luganville, the municipal council building has been crumpled by the intensifying winds. A roof has been blown across onto the forecourt, the awnings crumpled in. In mere hours, the winds have grown in ferocity as Cyclone Harold marched slowly towards Santo.

Standing in her house in Luganville, World Vision's Vomboe Molly Shem could see roofs lifting off neighbouring houses, trees being snapped in the winds. The full force of Cyclone Harold is still forecast to be hours away.

"The wind has picked up pace and it's really, really strong," she said. "From where I'm standing I can see the roofs of the houses being lifted. The roof opposite from where I'm standing has been lifted and trees coming down. Yeah it's really strong."

"I'm sure there will be a lot more damage outside of Luganville."

The lord mayor of Luganville, Peter Patty, told Islands Business magazine that the category five storm was already causing damage across the town, including to the council chambers. Evacuation centres were full, low-lying areas were flooded.

He said the cyclone couldn't come at a worse time, with Vanuatu facing the Covid-19 pandemic.

"This is one of the worst crises - to experience a cyclone in the middle of a pandemic that we have yet to recover from," Mr Patty said.

While Vanuatu has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, it is a state of emergency as it tries to remain one of the few countries to keep it out. Already, conditions have been relaxed to allow masses of people to seek shelter in evacuation centres.

But inter-island ferries and domestic air transport has been cancelled across the country, and there are concerns about how the coronavirus would affect an international response, if one is needed. Both of Australia and New Zealand, the two countries most likely to be called upon, have Covid-19. Measures would have to be introduced so it is not inadvertently introduced.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been approached for comment.

This story will be updated with developments throughout the day.