Australia Weather News

Tens of thousands of people across Vanuatu are bunkering down as a powerful category five cyclone moves across the Pacific island nation.

The Vanuatu Meteorological Department's tracking map shows it passed over the south-west tip of Vanuatu's largest island Santo this morning.

The last departmental update said winds of up to 215 kilometres an hour were emanating 55 kilometres from its centre.

At 2:00pm (local time), the cyclone was located 15 kilometres south-east of Santo's capital, Luganville.

Albert Ruddley is the controller at the Sanma Emergency Operations Centre in Luganville.

"For the last hour it's been really blowing strong," Mr Ruddley said.

"I've been driving for the last few hours and now I can tell you I just can't drive. I'm afraid to drive."

Many people on Santo moved into emergency shelters yesterday.

Mr Ruddley is bunkered down in his office with his family.

He said the strong winds have brought trees down and damaged food crops.

"Branches are falling and most of the roads with trees beside them have been blocked by branches," he said.

"In the islands a lot of thatch houses and banana, manioc, cassava, all those are down."

Social distancing paused

Vanuatu is already in a state of emergency because of coronavirus, although the country has no confirmed cases.

Over the weekend, disaster authorities had to lift bans on public gatherings larger than five, to ensure people made their way to evacuation centres.

Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) told people current rules on social distancing will not apply in shelters.

NDMO director Abraham Nasak said there was some confusion around the social-gathering rules, but said given the threat posed by the cyclone, people's safety was paramount.

"The rules about social gatherings don't apply right now because people need to be moving to safe shelters and evacuation centres to hide from the cyclone," he said in a post on social media.

Manson Taridenga, a disaster official in the northern province of Penama, said the impact of the cyclone was expected to grow, and that people were on alert.

"I think we are still preparing for the worst since we had another warning this morning," Mr Taridenga said.

"TC Harold is moving east, so it is on a line where we are. Really we are still waiting and we are prepared. People are well informed to start to look for safe centres and safe areas."

Tukatara Tangi, a humanitarian advisor with aid organisation Plan International Australia, said in a statement today that many Pacific countries "are still coming to terms with the risks of COVID-19" as the region braces for its annual cyclone season.

"The Pacific is three to four weeks behind other countries like Australia with the impacts of COVID-19," he said.

"Meanwhile, countries like Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are being hit by Tropical Cyclone Harold — more assistance for the Pacific is required."

So far, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has donated more than $99,000 in immediate emergency funds to the Solomon Islands.

Plan International Australia emergency programs coordinator Angellah Anisi told the ABC Australia's contribution to the Solomon Islands was the only known donation to the region so far.

"The [Solomons] Government has mentioned some form of support from China, however, information at this stage is limited as to what that support will look like," Ms Anisi said.

Solomons villagers fear infection from internal migration

Ms Anisi said villagers across the Solomon Islands feared the return of people back to their hometowns following the cyclone, given fears about COVID-19.

"Large scale dissemination of COVID-19 information is slow and logistics is a huge problem," she said.

Meanwhile, efforts to help cyclone-affected communities across the Solomons has proven difficult as communications infrastructure and some roads have been taken out, according to Ms Anisi.

"A bridge was damaged on Thursday making access to some of the communities difficult — access is now possible with local villagers clearing away debris to allow trucks to pass through," she said.

"Some of these communities do not have mobile coverage, therefore reliable information is hard to come by."

Five bodies were recovered on Sunday during the search for 27 people missing from the MV Taimareho, a ferry struck by heavy seas in waters near the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara.

ABC