'It's all gone': Cyclone Harold cuts a deadly path through Vanuatu

The northern islands of the Pacific nation were hit by a category-5 cyclone on Monday, flattening buildings, cutting power and stripping trees

The once-lush forest cover of the island of Malo has been completely denuded. Nearly every tree lost major limbs. Many were snapped at the trunk. Even cyclone-adapted coconut trees were strewn about like matchsticks. Schools and homes were destroyed.

On Monday, the tiny Pacific island country of Vanuatu was rocked by Cyclone Harold, the second category-5 storm to hit the nation in five years. The cyclone, which formed off Solomon Islands and led to the deaths of 27 people who were swept off a ferry in rough seas, went on to flatten buildings and cause severe flooding in Fiji and Tonga. But it passed through the north of Vanuatu when it was at its strongest.

A small, single-engine plane took off from Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila on Wednesday to survey the impact on the northern islands of the country. With communication lines down, news up until this point about the extent of the damage has been sparse, but as the plane flew over Malo, then Aore, and finally Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu, it was clear that the cyclone had cut a deadly path.

Four inter-island transport ships, at least one of them fully laden, were thrown ashore on the island of Malo
Four inter-island transport ships, at least one of them fully laden, were thrown ashore on the island of Malo. Photograph: Dan McGarry

Santo, the setting for the book that inspired the Rogers and Hammerstein classic musical South Pacific, was no longer recognisable. Once lush and verdant, it is now barren landscape, sun-burnt and severe.

The majority of Santo’s 40,000 inhabitants inhabit the southern coastal stretch of the 100km-long island, which was impacted directly by the storm.

For Lord Mayor Patty Peter, the experience was overwhelming. In an emotional phone call to media in Port Vila Tuesday he said, “We urgently need water, food and shelter at the moment. Many have lost their homes. Schools are destroyed. Electricity is down. I’m urgently calling for help. This is one of the worst experiences of my life.”

He later confirmed that food and water were being distributed, but “just for today and tomorrow. That’s all that we can do.”

The town has shrugged off smaller cyclones countless times in the past. “But this one, like, it’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for all the people in the northern islands,” said Peter.

A Luganville man standing in the ruins of his home explains how the nearby Sarakata river overflowed its banks during cyclone Harold and wiped away several houses
A Luganville man standing in the ruins of his home explains how the nearby Sarakata river overflowed its banks during cyclone Harold and wiped away several houses. Photograph: Dan McGarry

The damage wrought by Cyclone Harold is sickeningly reminiscent of the impact of Cyclone Pam in 2015, which directly impacted half the national population and damaged 90% of buildings in the capital, Port Vila. Vanuatu’s economy is only just recovering. With borders still closed under a state of emergency due to Covid-19, the nation faces immense challenges in rebuilding.

Residents in Luganville’s riverside communities were among the worst hit. The Sarakata river rose six to eight metres, flattening homes and damaging many others.

One 60 year-old man said: “I’ve lived here 13 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it ... It’s the first time in history we’ve seen it come this high.”

There are scenes of community spirit and resilience – children gleefully clambering through the wreckage, a grandmother with three small children busily limbing a fallen tree blocking the road outside their home – but there are immense challenges ahead.

Santo’s central power station was flooded, and kilometres of lines are down, including high tension lines to other southern communities. The municipal water service’s pumps operate on electricity, so Luganville has done without running water since the storm.

People will retrieve all the food they can from their ravaged gardens, but with no way to preserve it, and no prospect of a new crop in the next three months, they face an uncertain future.

Once a lush and beautiful meeting place for Luganville residents, Unity Park has been ravaged by Category 5 cyclone Harold.
Once a lush and beautiful meeting place for Luganville residents, Unity Park has been ravaged by category-5
Cyclone Harold.
Photograph: Dan McGarry/The Guardian

Christina Boelulvanua is a school teacher –or was – until the Covid-19 crisis sent her home. Forced into exile in 2017 by a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Ambae, she and her family were trying to build a new life in Luganville.

“I ran away from the volcano with my kids, thinking 2020 would be a safe place for my kids. And then comes Cyclone Harold.”

She is unsure how she will be able to feed her family, given her garden has been destroyed.

“Right now, we’re going to feed from what’s available, but after that it means we have to buy from the shop,” said Boelulvanua.

“Most people live on what’s planted in the garden. Some people who have paid jobs, they can still survive. But others who depend on food crops—I can’t see how they will survive. In rural areas, we depend on food crops, cash crops, we sell to earn money. And now it’s all gone.”


Dan McGarry in Luganville

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Vanuatu island in the eye of the storm
Pentecost Island, devastated by Cyclone Harold in April, has been left a silent shadow of its former self. But its people endure

Dan McGarry

05, Jun, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Cyclone Harold batters Fiji on path of destruction through Pacific
The tropical cyclone killed 27 people in Solomon Islands last week and has caused unknown destruction in Vanuatu

Kate Lyons and agencies

08, Apr, 2020 @5:47 AM

Article image
Vanuatu elects new prime minister as country reels from devastating cyclone
Bob Loughman, an MP from the island of Tanna, will become the next prime minister of the south Pacific nation

Tess Newton Cain

20, Apr, 2020 @6:24 AM

Article image
The house that can withstand a cyclone: how traditional dwellings are making a comeback in Vanuatu
Since Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu, locals are returning to the saeklon haos, made from vines, palm fronds and grasses

Jon Letman

08, Aug, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Communications down after category 5 Cyclone Harold hits Vanuatu
Pacific nation lashed by heavy rain, flash flooding and ‘phenomenal seas’

Kate Lyons

06, Apr, 2020 @5:59 AM

Article image
Vanuatu has cancelled my work permit; it's a dark day for media freedom | Dan McGarry
Vanuatu’s Daily Post has always held the government to account and will continue to do so, with or without me as editor

Dan McGarry

10, Nov, 2019 @11:54 PM

Article image
Vanuatu pioneers digital cash as disaster relief
Vulnerable to cyclones, volcanoes and the impacts of climate change, the Pacific archipelago is using blockchain technology to provide aid money directly to families recovering from natural disasters

Dan McGarry in Port Vila

06, Nov, 2020 @8:00 PM

Article image
Migration firm investigated over ads promising Vanuatu passports
Global-Migrate accused of promoting access to travel document without the government’s authority, although advertisements ‘not unlawful in themselves’

Ben Doherty Pacific editor

03, Feb, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Chinese vessels detained by Vanuatu, accused of fishing illegally
Crew on two vessels face further investigation in Pacific nation, a month after similar incident in Palau

Dan McGarry in Port Vila and Ben Doherty Pacific Editor

25, Jan, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Cyclone Harold: relief for Vanuatu delayed by coronavirus contamination fears
Humanitarian supplies flown in by Australian government can’t be touched for three days due to strict quarantine rules

Dan McGarry in Port Vila

14, Apr, 2020 @2:22 AM