Above: A high-resolution visible satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Harold as it neared the coast of Espiritu Santo, the largest island of Vanuatu, at 2200Z (9 am Monday local time) as a Category 4 storm. (RAMMB/CIRA/CSU).
Already wreaking deadly havoc while it was just a minimal tropical storm, Tropical Cyclone Harold was punishing the northern islands of Vanuatu on Monday local time as a dangerous Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Satellite imagery showed Harold making landfall on the southwest coast of the island of Espiritu Santo on Monday morning local time. Update: At 0Z Monday (11 am local time), the center of Harold had just made landfall about 15 miles south of the town of Elia, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.
Harold’s top sustained winds at 18Z Sunday were 145 mph, making it a mid-range Category 4 storm. It appears Harold was close to top strength as its eastern eyewall was coming ashore. At 0Z Monday, JTWC pegged Harold's top winds at 130 mph, which is minimal Cat 4 strength.
Harold was expected to bring destructive winds, a potential storm surge, and waves that could exceed 30 feet to the west coast of Espiritu Santo. The island has about 40,000 residents, mostly scattered in small villages. The largest city, Luganville (pop. 16,000) is on the southeast side of the island, which may have shielded it somewhat from the worst impacts of Harold.
There is rugged terrain just north of where Harold made landfall, including Mount Tabwemasana—one of the South Pacific's highest peaks, at 1879 meters (6165 feet). This disrupted the northern part of Harold and briefly dented its strength, but the storm rapidly reconsolidated after moving past Espiritu Santo. As it moved toward some of the islands just to the south and east of Espiritu Santo on Monday evening local time, it was looking more organized on satellite than at any point in its existence thus far. A second landfall is likely on Monday night local time toward the southern end of Pentecost Island.
Wind shear will remain moderate through Tuesday (about 15 knots) and Harold will continue passing over warm sea surface temperatures of around 28-29°C (82-84°F).
The storm is projected to remain far enough north to spare Efete Island, including Port Vila, from hurricane-strength winds. Those winds extended less than 50 miles from the center of Harold on Monday.
While it was passing just south of the Solomon Islands early Friday as a 40-mph tropical storm, Harold produced strong winds and rough seas. A ferry crossing Iron Bottom Sound was lashed by the rough conditions, and 27 passengers went overboard. Two bodies had been found as of Sunday, according to Radio New Zealand, and a search continued for the other 25 passengers.
Harold likely to be the second strongest cyclone in Vanuatu’s history
This is cyclone season in the Southern Hemisphere, and Vanuatu gets its share of cyclones, but Harold is an uncommonly powerful storm for this part of the South Pacific. According to JTWC, the only two cyclones of at least Category 3 strength on record to pass within 100 nm (115 miles) of Espiritu Santo are Zuman, which crossed the island as a minimal Category 3 storm (sustained winds of 115 mph) in April 1998, and Dani, which made landfall from the south as a strong Category 2 storm (sustained winds of 105 mph) in January 1999. Harold is thus likely to strike an unprecedented blow to this island, whose economy is based on subsistence farming.
Rainfall totals of over 10 inches are likely in some areas, with widespread totals of over 6 inches, said weather.com. Landslides and flash flooding are expected.
The last system this strong to affect any part of Vanuatu—and the strongest on record for the island nation—was Tropical Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 equivalent whose top winds of 175 mph (JTWC) made it the second strongest tropical cyclone on record for the South Pacific. Pam moved southward across several of Vanuatu’s smaller islands while at peak strength on March 13, 2015, and its western eyewall (the stronger side of the storm given the hemisphere and trajectory) passed over the east side of Efate Island. Pam’s death toll was relatively low given its strength (estimated at 15-16 people), but the storm was by far the most costly disaster in Vanuatu’s history, with damages totaling nearly $700 million (2015 USD). The island’s limited infrastructure was ravaged, and thousands of buildings on multiple islands were damaged or destroyed.
For any weather disaster right now, the global coronavirus pandemic is a major complication. Passengers aboard the ill-fated ferry in the Solomon Islands were among many leaving the island of Honiara amid a lockdown of the nation. Vanuatu had no confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Sunday, according to Reuters, but a state of emergency was declared for the nation on March 26.
Harold may still be a Category 3 storm when it passes near Fiji on Wednesday. Given its trajectory and the steady steering currents expected by that point, Harold is likely to remain far enough south to spare Fiji from major damage.