Cyclone Harold Got Little Attention, But It Holds Big Warnings for Hurricane Season

(Bloomberg) -- As March turned to April, a devastating cyclone gathered force over the Pacific Ocean and began to bear down on the island nations of Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, among others. The storm was eventually rated category 5—as high as the scale goes—and it struck just as the world was attempting to adjust to the dislocation caused by Covid-19.

As the first major storm to overlap with the pandemic, Cyclone Harold exposed the weakness of the disaster response supply chain and the unreliability of international funding channels. The aftermath holds important warnings for the rest of what’s predicted to be a busy storm season in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, according to a new analysis by advocacy group Refugees International. “We are underprepared for intersecting crises like this across the globe,” said Kayly Ober, the lead author of the report.  

Because of the relatively remote nature of the Pacific Islands and strict travel limitations enacted to slow the spread of the pandemic, the Pacific Islands have had very few reported cases of Covid-19. But this isolation was a double edge sword, the report found. 

Harold resulted in the displacement of 80,000 people on Vanuatu, the hardest hit of the islands, or roughly one quarter of its population, the report found. Moreover, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that winds damaged more than 175,000 hectares of cropland.

Despite the desperate need for aid, supplies and relief workers have had trouble reaching the islands. Ports in Vanuatu in particular have followed strict a strict quarantine procedure, which has held up distribution of life-saving supplies like food and medicine for up to 14 days, the report said. Researchers for Refugees International were themselves unable to visit the islands, and their report is a synthesis of interviews with locals, reports by international NGOs and relief organizations, and local press reports.

Ellie van Baaren, a regional spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said that distributing supplies ahead of time might be one way to avoid such problems. “Harold reinforced the importance of localized response and community responders,” she said. “Local people can more easily mobilize volunteers in and around the affected communities, have pre-positioned stocks of relief items in-country, and [also] existing local relationships and partnerships.”

With Covid-19 soaking up global attention, Harold received far less media focus and funding than previous catastrophic storms, Refugees International found. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Financial Tracking Service, Vanuatu received more than $37.2 million in humanitarian assistance for Cyclone Pam, a category 5 storm, in 2015. OCHA estimates that only $3.3 million has been donated for Cyclone Harold relief, although some commitments have been delayed due to the virus. Based on press releases from the UN and donor governments, Refugees International estimates that only around $13.75 million has been donated so far, with the lion's share coming from Australia.

The reduction in international aid comes as other usual forms of financial support have also dropped off, including remittances home by islanders who have gone to work in other countries. Many migrants have lost their jobs and, as foreigners, don’t have access to government relief funds.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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