April 8 -- Despite being spared a direct hit from Tropical Cyclone Harold, the island of Fiji has suffered extensive damage from high winds, rain and a battering storm surge, officials said.
The monster storm lashed the Vanuatu Islands on Tuesday as it charged eastward, battering the small islands, which are situated about 1,500 miles east of Australia's northeast coast, with fierce winds and heavy rains as it made landfall.
Harold, which AccuWeather meteorologists have been monitoring for over a week, formed a week ago in the Coral Sea before heading east toward the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The Solomon Islands were the first to be blasted by the strengthening cyclone over the weekend.
The Solomon Island Herald reported Monday that at least six people were killed, and their bodies recovered, after a ferry with 27 people on board encountered dangerous seas stirred by the cyclone.
The Royal Solomon Island Police Force was urging that all small craft remain out of the water as the dangerous seas persisted on Monday.
On Monday, Harold reached its peak intensity with wind speeds of 165 mph as it crossed the northern islands of Vanuatu. Winds of this speed made Harold a Category 5 cyclone on the Fiji scale and equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic and East Pacific oceans.
Harold was downgraded to a Category 4 cyclone on Tuesday, but remained a dangerous storm.
"Communications to Santo and Malekula [Vanuatu's two largest islands] are cut now, so we don't know what's happening," said Eric Durpaire, the chief of Vanuatu's field office for UNICEF Pacific, over the phone from the country's capital of Port Vila. He added that the roof of the municipality building on Santo collapsed, and there was also flooding damage.
No deaths have been reported so far from Harold in Vanuatu. However, with communication down in some of the hardest hit areas, it may be days before the public is made aware of the extent of the damage.
Farther away from the eye of the cyclone, outer rain bands pounded the southern islands of Vanuatu. Rainfall on the island of Aneityum reached 6.5 inches on Monday night.
The International Federation of the Red Cross shared "devastating images" from parts of Vanuatu that were walloped by Harold.
The Guardian reported that Vanuatu is one of the few countries in the world that still had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 early this week. The country, however, is closed to international travelers and has also enacted curfews and banned gatherings of more than five people. In order for residents to evacuate and receive help following Harold, some of these restrictions have been temporarily lifted.
On Tuesday, Vanuatu revoked their domestic travel ban, and Air Vanuatu announced that domestic passenger flights would resume on Friday.
After battering Vanuatu, Harold passed just south of Fiji at midweek. Ahead of the cyclone, Fiji Airways moved several aircraft overseas to avoid damage, according to the Fijian Broadcasting Corporation.
Fiji's National Disaster Management Office announced evacuation orders on Tuesday afternoon, asking those in low-lying areas to move to higher ground ahead of Harold.
Popular tourist destinations on the island have suffered heavy damage from the cyclone's storm surge and high winds and power outages and road closures have also been reported.
The Fiji National Disaster Management Office is urging residents to stay indoors for their own safety. The Fiji Times reported that around nine homes were damaged by a possible tornado within the cyclone's rain bands.
The National Disaster Management Office in Fiji activated more than 250 evacuation centers in preparation of the cyclone, Radio New Zealand reported.
Conditions will rapidly improve across Fiji into late week as Harold tracks to the southeast toward Tonga, where the government declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm's arrival.
These islands in the South Pacific are no stranger to influences from tropical cyclones, with a cyclone season that runs from November to April each year. The 2015-2016 season was the deadliest on record, with 50 deaths attributed to cyclones that impacted islands of the region, including Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Tropical Cyclone Pam was the last Severe Tropical Cyclone to hit Vanuatu, in 2015, according to Steven Bowen, a meteorologist who works for risk management firm Aon. The storm caused more than $380 million in damage.