Above: Radar image of Tropical Cyclone Harold at 1610Z Tuesday, April 7, 2020 (4:15 am Wednesday Fiji time). (Fiji Meteorological Service)
Update (1 pm EDT Tuesday): After dealing the northern islands of Vanuatu a punishing blow, Tropical Cyclone Harold was headed toward a potential landfall on Fiji's southermost islands. At 12Z Tuesday (midnight Tuesday night Fiji time), the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) placed the center of Harold about 290 miles west of Suva, Fiji. The storm was heading east-southeast with top sustained winds (1-minute) of 125 mph, making it a high-end Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
Harold is enmeshed in strong, steady steering currents that will take its stronger left-hand (northern) side uncomfortably close to Viti Levu, Fiji's largest and most populous island. On the track predicted by JTWC and the Fiji Meteorological Service, Harold should pass just far enough south of Viti Levi to keep the northern eyewall from hitting the island at full force, but it will be a close call. At a minimum, southwestern parts of Viti Levi can expect strong tropical storm force and gusts as high as 80-100 mph, especially at elevation, along with torrential rains. A hurricane warning was in effect for the southern islands of Kadavu (pop. 10,000) and the much smaller Ono-i-Lau. Harold’s eye or eyewall could slam directly into Kadavu on Wednesday local time. The island nation of Tonga, well to the southeast, will also be at risk of a direct landfall or eyewall encounter by Thursday local time. Although Harold is expected be gradually weakening by that point, it could still be a Category 3 storm.
Harold became Earth's first Category 5 storm of the year at 12Z Monday (11 pm Monday Vanuatu time), when JTWC upgraded Harold’s top sustained winds (1-minute) to 165 mph as the center of Harold was located about 30 miles east of Bunlap on Pentecost Island. By 0Z Tuesday (8 pm EST Monday), Harold's top winds had dropped to 130 mph, making it a Category 4 storm.
Harold tore into Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s largest island, on Monday morning local time with top winds estimated by JTWC of 145 mph. 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. Disruptions to communication have made it difficult to assess how hard Vanuatu was hit.
Eric Durpaire, the chief of Vanuatu’s field office for UNICEF Pacific, told The Guardian, “Communications to Santo and Malekula [the island south of Espiritu Santo] are cut now, so we don’t know what’s happening. The latest information we had was that the roof of the municipality building of Santo has collapsed and there is flooding.”
The rugged terrain of Espiritu Santo helped weaken Harold’s circulation briefly, but the storm rebounded with remarkable strength in just several hours. Based on satellite imagery, Harold was likely already at Category 5 strength when it slammed headlong into the south end of Pentecost Island late Monday (its official JTWC rating at that point was 155 mph, just 2 mph below of Category 5). The narrow island’s north-south orientation means that only a small land area experienced the worst of eastward-moving Harold, but extreme devastation may have occurred. Lonorore Airport is located on the island’s southwest coast close to Harold's landfall location.
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.
See the weather.com article for updates on the impacts of Harold.
The high-resolution HWRF model accurately predicted that Harold would gain strength after passing over Espiritu Santo. Harold has been experiencing only light to moderate wind shear (around 10 knots) while passing over very warm sea surface temperatures of 28-29°C (84-86°F).
For a dramatic satellite-based dissection of Harold’s journey across northern Vanuatu, see the analysis by weather.com’s Chris Dolce.
Harold is 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. As noted by Dr. Jeff Masters in his Eye of the Storm blog at Scientific American, Harold is the strongest storm on record this late in the season and this far east in the South Pacific.
Harold is the first Category 4 or 5 storm on record to move across the northern part of Vanuatu, including Espiritu Santo and Pentecost Island. Records for this part of the world extend back about 50 years.
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.
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.