Just days after hitting Vanuatu, Cyclone Harold struck Fiji on Wednesday. These island nations are coping with fallout from coronavirus pandemic, but that doesn’t mean extreme weather will take it easy on those in its path. That’s certainly been the case with this monster cyclone.
The storm first wreaked havoc in the Solomon Islands, where it took over a ferry with 28 people on board. Then, it pummelled the island nation of Vanuatu with winds of up to 133 miles per hour (214 km/h) Monday. The storm briefly attained Category 5 status after passing over Vanuatu before dipping back to a still-dangerous Category 4 storm as it approached Fiji.
The Joint Typhoon Warning Centre puts its maximum sustained wind speed at 140 mph (225 km/h) by the time the cyclone arrived in southern Fiji on Wednesday afternoon. Winds that fast can strip well-built homes of their roofs and uproot trees. And that’s exactly what happened—and more.
Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, avoided a direct hit from the storm. But the outer bands of Harold lashed the island with wind and rain, including the capital city of Suva, which is coping severe flooding and the destruction of homes and communication lines. Other cities on the island such as Nadi have lost power. So far, no deaths have been confirmed, but communication is still scarce. Unconfirmed photos on Twitter show toppled buildings and fallen trees, and Fijian Broadcasting Corporation reports tornado damage as well. Kadavu Island located south of Viti Levu took a shot from Harold head-on. Though less populated, damage there could be catastrophic, but communication remains scarce.
Nearly 1,800 evacuees took shelter ahead of Harold. However, seeking shelter amid a highly contagious virus may present a different danger for families. Fiji has confirmed 15 cases of covid-19, though the number is likely an undercount given how little testing is being done.
Vanuatu faced similar worries in the face of Harold. No coronavirus cases have been reported yet, but the nation is similarly short on tests. Luganville, the country’s second-largest city, saw 70 per cent of its structures damaged and the government urged people to seek shelter before the storm. Damage in the aftermath could keep people in close contact, raising the risk of community spread if the disease is present.
Next, Cyclone Harold is on track to arrive at the Polynesian islands of Tonga, which sits southeast of Fiji. Luckily, many of these islands aren’t inhabited, but it’s still home to more than 106,000 people. High tide warnings are in effect for many islands with swells up to nearly 20 feet.
How the island nations respond in the coming months will give the world a sense of what it means to battle two disasters at once. The covid-19 pandemic is threatening the health and safety of millions around the globe, and Pacific cyclones can strike at any time. Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1.
The U.S. is poorly prepared for hurricane season even without a pandemic. This year’s hurricane season may prove more deadly than it needs to be if leaders can’t get a handle on the coronavirus outbreak ravaging the nation before their summer rolls around.