A deadly Pacific cyclone intensified as it hit Vanuatu on Monday, threatening a natural disaster that experts fear will undermine the impoverished Pacific nation's battle to remain coronavirus-free.
Tropical Cyclone Harold, which claimed 27 lives when it swept through the Solomon Islands last week, strengthened to a scale-topping category five superstorm overnight, Vanuatu's meteorology service said.
The cyclone is now packing winds of up to 235 kilometres per hour (145 mph), prompting red alerts across several provinces.
It made landfall on the remote east coast of Espiritu Santo island on Monday morning and was heading directly for Vanuatu's second-largest town Luganville, which has a population of 16,500.
The slow-moving storm is expected to pass north of the capital Port Vila early Tuesday.
Officials warned residents in the nation of 300,000 to expect flash flooding and said ships should stay in port or risk facing huge swells.
Another concern is the impact a large natural disaster could have on Vanuatu's attempts to remain one of the world's few countries without any reported COVID-19 infections.
Vanuatu has virtually sealed its international borders to avoid the virus but emergency measures such bans on public meetings have been temporarily suspended to allow people to gather in evacuation centres.
"The focus was more on COVID-19 and now we have moved our focus to preparedness for the cyclone," Vanuatu Red Cross disaster coordinator Augustine Garae told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"We understand that some people in some communities are not really well prepared."
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