Tropical Cyclone Harold just won’t quit. After ravaging Vanuatu as a Category 4- or 5-equivalent storm late Monday and Tuesday, it spent Wednesday morning local time buffeting Fiji. The archipelago braced for an anticipated direct hit of the Category 3-equivalent cyclone as daylight dawned Wednesday.
In Harold’s wake lay severe damage in northern Vanuatu, which suffered its worst direct hit from a tropical cyclone on record. Vanuatu is roughly 1,200 miles northeast of Brisbane, on Australia’s east coast, while Fiji is southeast of Vanuatu and about 1,700 miles east-northeast of Brisbane.
In Vanuatu, flooding accompanied the storm thanks to its slow movement, which probably dumped 10 to 18 inches of rainfall on the island terrain. Winds gusting in excess of 170 mph and a potentially destructive storm surge wrought havoc on Pentecost Island, home to roughly 17,000.
Harold’s assault on Vanuatu featured sudden strengthening immediately after it slammed Espiritu Santo and Malo at Category 4 intensity. It then transformed into a monstrous Category 5 storm with an eyewall enveloped in lightning before ravaging Pentecost Island.
The only other storm of its class to affect Vanuatu hit in 2015, when 175 mph Cyclone Pam brought disaster to several of the country’s smaller islands.
Fiji is made up of over 300 islands, but its largest — home to the capital of Suva — is likely to be in the direct path of Harold’s northern eyewall as the cyclone whirls past.
The northern eyewall is the most hazardous for cyclones in the southern hemisphere, which spin clockwise. That means that, for eastward-moving storms, a cyclone’s forward motion couples with the rotational winds, amplifying gusts north of the eye.
Winds gusting to 60 mph were observed in Nadi, Fiji, on Tuesday afternoon.
The Fiji Meteorological Service anticipated “damaging gale force winds gusting to [70 mph] … and increasing further to destructive storm force winds gusting to [100 mph]” in Suva. Suva and surrounding areas have a population of nearly 200,000. Suva is on the southeastern portion of the main island.
Sigatoka, an oceanside community on the southwestern corner of Viti Levu island, is expected to bear the full force of Harold as its dangerous eyewall clips the island. There, the Fiji Meteorological Service is calling for “destructive hurricane force [sustained] winds of 105 mph gusting to 150 mph.”
Doppler radar from Nadi International Airport revealed a slightly encouraging trend about two or three hours before Harold’s closest pass. While the eyewall did appear to scrape Sigatoka, there were some indications that a temporary hiccup in the storm’s organization, known as an eyewall replacement cycle, may have begun.
That would entail a temporary weakening of the eyewall — within which the strongest winds swirl — and a reduction of the most severe gusts. But such a weakening trend would not last long.
Conditions will improve during the afternoon hours Wednesday local time in Fiji, but the island nation of Tonga could come into play in the coming days as a slowly weakening Harold churns southeast. It remains to be seen which specific islands wind up close to Harold’s center of circulation.
In the meantime, Fiji braces for impact as Vanuatu continues to pick up the pieces.