Climate change doesn’t take a break just because there’s a pandemic. Point in case: On Monday, Cyclone Harold roared over the small island nation of Vanuatu, lashing the islands with powerful winds and heavy rain. The storm forced the island to open emergency shelters, putting people in close proximity to each other in what could be a preview of things to come elsewhere as other disasters intersect with the coronavirus pandemic.
Cyclone Harold strafed the Solomon Islands over the weekend as the equivalent of a tropical storm, washing 28 people on a ferry overboard who are presumed dead. But once out over the open water between the Solomon Island and Vanuatu, Harold blew up. The storm strengthened to the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 mph (233 km/h).
The storm maintained Category 4 status up until landfall on Vanuatu’s largest island of Espiritu Santo where it plowed over the southern part of the island. The country’s second-largest city, Luganville, was hit by the eyewall. That part of the storm tends to pack the most ferocious winds. Unconfirmed photos show the town’s council building collapsed and large trees uprooted by winds and saturated soils.
— Dr. Siobhan McDonnell (@SiobhanADM) April 6, 2020
As the Cyclone Harold crossed the channel between Espiritu Santo and Vanuatu’s eastern islands, it exploded a second time. The storm’s winds sped up from 130 mph to 155 mph (210 km/h to 250 km/h) in the span of just six hours, making it a fringe Category 5 right before a second landfall on the island of Pentecost. Together with the increase in wind speed in the preceding 18 hours, the storm became a textbook case of rapid intensification used to describe storms that see wind speeds increase 35 mph (56 km/h) in 24 hours. That type of storm power-up is becoming more common in a warming world.
The storm brings back shades of Cyclone Pam, the last major cyclone to hit the islands. Pam struck in 2015, wiping out agriculture and denuding entire islands with it Category 5 winds. But that storm wasn’t compounded by a global pandemic.
Vanuatu had instituted a social distancing policy by banning gatherings of five or more people and most international and domestic travel. But it lifted the social distancing ban ahead of Cyclone Harold to encourage people to seek shelter. It’s unclear what the country will need after the storm for recovery, but there’s a good chance it will need supplies and relief, raising questions about how the country will deal with its travel ban.
Vanuatu has no recorded cases of the novel coronavirus sweeping around the world, but that may in part be due to lack of testing infrastructure. As of late last month, the island was expecting an influx of testing equipment and ventilators from China, according to the Vanuatu Daily Post. But it’s unclear if those supplies arrived ahead of the storm.
If there are any people with coronavirus in cyclone shelters, it could speed the spread of the disease that is easily transmissible between people in close proximity. Foreign aid workers from countries with confirmed cases of coronavirus like New Zealand, Australia, and China that typically offer help in the region could further raise the odds of the coronavirus spreading across the island nation. That would raise huge risks as the country’s best-equipped hospital in the capital of Port Villa only has two lifesaving ventilators. The country’s other hospital in Luganville is currently without any according to the Daily Post report. That means any outbreak of coronavirus could quickly become deadly even before factoring in any damage to medical, electrical, or transportation infrastructure Harold might have caused.
The challenges Vanuatu faces are hardly limited to the developing the world. Hurricane season in the Atlantic is expected to be more intense than usual, and Gulf or East Coast states like Louisiana, Georgia, and New York are dealing with intense outbreaks of covid-19. Though the disease is expected to peak before hurricane season starts in June, the risk of a tropical storm will inevitably raise some of the same issues about shelters and compounded response after a storm passes we’re seeing in Vanuatu right now.
Harold isn’t done yet, either. The storm is expected to remain a Category 4 and approach Fiji later this week. The island nation is home to 14 confirmed covid-19 cases.