Pacific’s monster storm Harold moves on to Fiji

This handout photo taken and released to AFP on April 7, 2020, by Tasso Joshua via Facebook shows high seas along the coast in Lamen Bay, about halfway between Port Vila and Luganville in the north, after Tropical Cyclone Harold swept through the northern islands of the Pacific island country. – The deadly cyclone destroyed much of Vanuatu’s second-largest town Luganville, 275 km (170 miles) north of Port Vila, but early warnings appeared to have prevented mass casualties in the Pacific nation, with some residents sheltered in caves to stay safe, aid workers said on April 7. (Photo by Tasso JOSHUA / Courtesy of Tasso Joshua / AFP) 

SUVA, Fiji (AFP) — A deadly Pacific cyclone bore down on Fiji Wednesday after leaving a trail of destruction in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Tropical Cyclone Harold weakened slightly overnight from a scale-topping category five to a four, but was still lashing Fiji with winds of up to 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour), forecasters said.

The official NaDraki weather service said the cyclone was offshore south of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu, but passing closer to land than initially expected.

Despite the downgrade, it said Harold remained “extremely dangerous” and advised residents in the island’s south to shelter in churches, schools or other substantial buildings.

“Its intensity makes it capable of causing destruction to property and infrastructure, and more significantly, serious injury and loss of life,” the service warned.

Residents in Suva said the capital was already experiencing strong winds and heavy rains, with the storm’s impact expected to peak later Wednesday.

Harold already claimed 27 lives in the Solomon Islands last week and on Tuesday tore through Vanuatu, destroying much of the country’s second-largest town Luganville.

Red Cross Vanuatu secretary general Jacqueline de Gaillande said the scale of destruction was still unknown as communications remain down in the worst-hit northern provinces.

“The NDMO (national disaster management office) carried out some aerial surveys but they did not get back until late last night and we don’t know what they showed,” she told AFP.

A massive international aid effort was launched after the last category five storm to hit Vanuatu, Cyclone Pam in 2015, flattened the capital Port Vila.

But Vanuatu’s international borders are currently closed as the impoverished Pacific nation bids to remain one of the world’s few places with no confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The government has revoked a domestic travel ban imposed as part of its virus response, which will allow disaster relief to flow from Port Vila to the north.

© Agence France-Presse