The Japanese satellite Himawari-8 captures Cyclone Harold's continued churning across the Pacific as daylight dawned Thursday local time. (CIRA/RAMMB)

After ravaging Vanuatu and Fiji early this week, tropical cyclone Harold lashed Tonga on Thursday local time. Damaging winds, hazardous storm surge and flooding rains were expected in the tropical island chain, which is home to a little more than 100,000 people. It comes after Harold became the first storm this year to peak at the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane Monday.

While referred to as a cyclone in the western Pacific Ocean, the storm is no different from a hurricane.

Tonga marks the third island country to be hit by Harold in barely four days’ time, the relentless cyclone maintaining high-end Category 3 strength as its reign of terror continues. It comes amid a global pandemic, as coronavirus concerns have complicated sheltering decisions and may hamper relief efforts.

Winds gusted to 83 mph at the Fuaʻamotu International Airport on Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, shortly after daybreak Thursday local time (Wednesday afternoon Eastern time).

The government-operated Tonga Meteorological Service had issued a hurricane warning for Tongatapu, the main island in the Kingdom of Tonga, and Eua, a smaller island to the southeast, stating that winds would “rapidly increase to storm force winds [of 60 to 70 mph] with momentary gusts of hurricane force winds up to [85 to 110 mph].”

Fortunately, the center of Harold appeared to pass about 100 miles south of Tongatapu and Eua islands, most likely sparing them the most severe wind and surge.

Other places, however, haven’t been so fortunate. Portions of Vanuatu, an archipelago nation some 1,200 miles northeast of Brisbane, Australia, sustained a direct hit from the then-Category 5-equivalent monster.

Harold first impacted Vanuatu on Monday (Sunday Eastern time), trekking across the islands of Espiritu Santo and Malo at high-end Category 4 intensity. According to ReliefWeb, 70 percent of the structures were damaged in Luganville, Vanuatu’s second-largest city on Espiritu Santo.

After an abrupt recovery following its interaction with land, the behemoth storm strengthened even further, becoming a hellacious Category 5 equivalent enveloped in prolific lightning. The devastating blow to Pentecost Island bore shades of Cyclone Pam’s 175 mph passage in 2015.


Harold's onslaught on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu as captured by the Japanese satellite Himawari-8 on Monday. (RAMMB/CIRA/JMA)

From there, Harold raked Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, atop of which sits the capital of Suva. The storm’s screaming eyewall skirted just south of the coast, the island narrowly avoiding an encounter with winds gusting more than 130 mph.

However, the eye redeveloped and swallowed Kadavu island at Category 4 strength shortly afterward.

Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, indicated that the nation’s government had prepared its cyclone response with the coronavirus pandemic in mind, tweeting that “evacuation centers [were] sanitized and monitored to ensure they [did] not surpass capacity.”

He added that “close contacts under #COVID19 quarantine would not mix with others,” and urged all residents under evacuation orders to do so. Viti Levu’s roads were closed during the height of the storm.

Fiji has confirmed at least 15 cases of covid-19, and has imposed curfews and business restrictions, as well as stay-at-home orders.

The Fijian government tweeted that several roads remained underwater or impassible due to debris Wednesday.

Winds in Tonga will subside and conditions improve as Harold pulls away from the islands Thursday afternoon, allowing officials an opportunity to assess any damage. Thereafter, Harold’s spate of island impacts looks to come to an end, the system gradually weakening as it blows through the South Pacific in the coming days.