Vanuatu is bracing for a direct hit from the still intensifying Cyclone Harold, which is forecast to pass straight over the central islands, forcing the country to contend with dual emergencies.
Harold, a category four storm, was sitting off the country’s west and continuing to strengthen on Sunday afternoon.
The system had slowed to a crawl, said Fred Jockley, a forecaster at the Vanuatu Meteorological Service, a worrying development as a slow-moving cyclone allows it to absorb more moisture, thus gaining size and strength.
On its current track, Harold is forecast to pass directly over the islands of Malekula and Ambrym late on Monday as a powerful and destructive category five storm – the highest category there is – with winds near its centre in excess of 200km/h.
While its path could stray from that forecast, Vanuatu is almost certain to experience some kind of direct hit, with Mr Jockley warning of destructive winds, torrential rains, phenomenal seas, and flash flooding and landslides in several provinces.
“It’s very severe,” he said. “There’s already a lot of flooding, there are already reports of damage to some houses.”
On Sunday, reports from islands in Vanuatu’s west – including Santo, the country’s largest – indicated that damage had already been done, with people forced to flee villages or find higher ground.
“We are now seeing a lot of rainfall and massive flash flooding,” said Manson Taridenga, a disaster official in Penama, one of the provinces in Harold’s firing line. “We have already seen some damage to infrastructure like roads.”
Pictures shared to social media showed villages on the island of Malekula, which is likely to bear a direct impact, flooded by rivers that spilled over their banks to swallow food gardens, and villagers boarding up huts and tightening thatching on their roofs.
“We’re just making things ready, especially to organise communities to move, to prepare evacuation centres and also to organise vulnerable people,” Mr Taridenga said.
For Vanuatu, the Pacific, and countries that are often called upon for support like New Zealand and Australia, the threat of such a powerful cyclone comes at the worst possible time, as the region contends with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Vanuatu has been in a state of emergency for weeks, with the country in effective lockdown. The border has been closed, and people have been ordered to stay home with gatherings of more than five people banned.