Powerful Cyclone Rips Through Vanuatu, Cutting Communications

Cyclone Harold ripped through Vanuatu for a second straight day on Tuesday, cutting off communications in some areas and complicating the Pacific nation’s efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Category 5 cyclone made landfall on Monday on an island north of the capital, Port Vila. It cut off “many areas” of the country’s northern provinces, the authorities said. It was later downgraded to a Category 4 storm.

No deaths had been reported as of late Tuesday afternoon, but early photos of the storm’s devastation showed villages where thatch roofs had been damaged or blown away entirely, raising fears.

Last week, as Harold churned through the nearby Solomon Islands, passengers were washed from a ferry as they tried to make a dangerous journey through normally calm seas. Dozens are still missing and feared dead.

Harold was moving eastward toward Fiji on Tuesday afternoon as a Category 4 storm, the Meteorology and Geo-hazards Division said. The agency estimated that the storm was churning along with maximum wind speeds of about 115 miles per hour, and it advised residents to take extra precautions until the storm had completely left Vanuatu’s waters.

The storm was expected to track south of Fiji’s southern islands, but the authorities there were still bracing for strong winds and heavy rains. Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office on Tuesday ordered some people to move into evacuation centers, and warned others to watch out for floodwaters and move livestock to higher ground.

The powerful cyclone complicates travel restrictions and social distancing measures that had been instituted in both countries to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That includes a virtual lockdown in Fiji and a ban on travel between Vanuatu’s 83 islands.

Fiji has 15 confirmed coronavirus cases but no deaths, and Vanuatu, which has a population of about 300,000 people, is among the few countries in the world with none of either.

“Given this virus struck Fiji in cyclone season, we knew from the start we had to weatherproof our Covid-19 containment efforts to the very real possibility of a severe storm striking,” Fiji’s government said on Twitter, referring to the disease caused by the virus.

“Thank God we have,” it added, noting that the cyclone was “currently wreaking havoc on our Pacific brothers and sisters in Vanuatu.”

The Fijian government grounded the entire domestic fleet of Fiji Airways. It allowed several virus-related evacuation flights to Sydney and Los Angeles to go ahead as scheduled, but said that the aircraft would not return until the threat of the cyclone had passed.

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