April 29, 2020

The first Category 5 cyclone to hit the northern islands.

As the unfolding tragedy of the coronavirus began to take hold of almost every country around the world, the Vanuatu government began weighing up the impact it could have on its own people. With so much of the population in isolated villages spread across the 80 or so islands that make up the archipelago, the devastation the virus could cause would be unimaginable.

The government therefore made the decision to close Vanuatu’s borders – early. It was decision that certainly paid off with no reported cases of the virus anywhere in the country.

But as everyone began to breathe a sigh of relief, there was another potential disaster looming.

On April 1, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported that a tropical low had developed east of Papua New Guinea. As the system developed, it began tracking towards the Solomon Islands. Passing approximately 135km to the southeast of Honiara, the cyclone gained ferocity and its track suggested it would make landfall somewhere along the west coast of Espiritu Santo.

On April 4, it was reclassified as a Category 3 cyclone and soon developed into a Category 4 severe tropical cyclone.

On April 6, at around 11:00am local time, Harold made landfall on the west coast of Santo, with 10-minute sustained winds of 215km/h (130mph). Harold continued to the southeast almost following the Segond Channel and the stronger northern eyewall of the cyclone passed over Luganville near 1pm local time.

While the storm weakened for a few hours, wind shear and very warm sea surface temperatures caused the cyclone to re-intensify just before passing over the south end of Pentecost Island in the early evening. When it hit the island, it was packing winds of up to 270km/h (168mph) – the strongest recorded along Harold’s destructive path across the northern islands.

While two category 3 cyclones have hit Espiritu Santo and Pentecost Islands in the past, Harold was the first Category 4 or 5 cyclone on record to hit the islands.

MODIS Visible satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Harold making landfall on the west coast of Espiritu Santo. Credit: NASA
Infrared Himawari-8 image of Cyclone Harold over Pentecost Island. Credit: NOAA, CIRA & RAMMB
Damage to homes on Espiritu Santo following Cyclone Harold. Credit: Kevin Green

The aftermath of Cyclone Harold is nothing short of devastating. West coast communities were completely destroyed as was 90% of the houses on Pentacost. The damage across Santo and the islands is unimaginable. Of course, with Vanuatu’s borders closed due to the coronavirus, it’s been an immense challenge to get aid and personnel in. In fact, no personnel will be allowed in until border restrictions are lifted. So where possible, assistance is coming from Port Vila.

The people across the northern islands are facing challenges beyond anyone’s comprehension. It will be a mammoth rebuilding requiring time and an immense amount of effort. But of all the things that will get the Ni-Vanuatu people through all of this, it’s their faith and resilience that will ensure they stay strong.

Villages on nearby islands have been completely flattened. Credit: Big Heart Island Vanuatu

If you’d like to help the people of Vanuatu, donations can be made through Big Heart Island Vanuatu. A wonderful charity set up by Museum Secretary Mayumi Green following Cyclone Pam in 2015, to look after the people of Vanuatu in times of natural disaster. A Go Fund Me page has been set up following Cyclone Harold here:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/tc-harold-relief-fund-by-big-heart-island-vanuatu

Alternatively, donations may be made directly to Big Heart Island’s ANZ Bank account in Espiritu Santo. Details can be sent to you by emailing info@southpacificwwiimuseum.com

If you would like to keep up to date with what Big Heart Island are doing to support the people of Vanuatu, visit their Facebook page at:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/BigHeartIslandVanuatu/about/