FILE PHOTO: Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks with a delegate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo during an event hosted by the U.S. Department of State’s Energy Resources Governance Initiative at the Palace Hotel on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, New York, U.S., September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia said on Thursday it stood ready to help nearby Pacific Island nations in the aftermath of a powerful cyclone that has cut a path through a region already under restricted movement to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Cyclone Harold, a category 5 storm packing winds in excess of 251 km/h, hit Tonga early on Thursday, cutting power and destroying popular holiday resorts. Tonga Police posted images of flattened beachfront resort buildings on its official Twitter page.
The storm has already passed through Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, flattening homes, cutting communication lines and bringing high seas. Dozens of people were killed when they were swept off a ferry off the Solomon Islands.
Although the Pacific has relatively few cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and no reported deaths, much of the region has restricted personal movement to slow any spread.
“We are acutely conscious that this comes on top of the impact and difficulties created by COVID-19 for those countries and so our support is all the more important,” said Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a televised news conference.
Australia has already started helping with the cleanup in Solomon Islands, promised relief supplies like tents and water containers to Vanuatu and would also offer support in Fiji, Payne added.
“We stand ready to provide what further help we can to our Pacific family in whatever ways we can,” she said.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said Harold had left “a path of destruction in its wake”.
“This storm must not compromise our #coronavirus containment, lest we risk damage far more painful than any cyclone,” Bainimarama’s posted on his official Twitter account. “It’s vital every Fijian follows all of our public health directives.”
Reporting by Byron Kaye; editing by Jane Wardell