Giant storm hits Vanuatu amid coronavirus state of emergency

(CNN)Vanuatu has been slammed by one of the strongest recorded storms to ever make landfall on the tiny Pacific nation, forcing the government to suspend coronavirus social distancing measures for evacuees.

Tropical Cyclone Harold packed winds of up to 250 kilometers per hour and was approaching the strength of a Category 5 hurricane, making it the strongest storm to hit Vanuatu in five years and the strongest one ever to make landfall on the nation's largest island, Espiritu Santo.

The cyclone hit Espiritu Santo on Monday then moved southeast over the island of Pentecost hours later. Harold strengthened even further during the day, with winds increasing up to 270 kph and gusts peaking over 300 kph.

Winds over the islands of Vanuatu should lessen on Tuesday as the storms moves away from the nation.

The Vanuatu meteorology and geo-hazards department had warned the storm would bring hurricane-force winds with heavy rainfalls and flash flooding over low-lying areas of the islands. Some communication lines have been disrupted.

The department has issued a red alert, the highest possible level, as well as several strong wind warning for all coastal areas of Vanuatu. It said vessels were "strongly advised not to go out to sea."

The Vanuatu government declared a state of emergency on March 26 over the coronavirus panedemic, stopping flights in and out of the country. According to the foreign ministry, the last international flight left on March 21.

The country has not yet recorded any confirmed cases of the virus, but social gatherings of more than five people have been prohibited, shops, bars and restaurants have been ordered to close by 7:30 p.m. and public transport shuts down at 9 p.m.

Vanuatu's national disaster management office said the restrictions would not apply to those seeking safe houses or evacuation centers because of the storm.

Tropical Cyclone Harold is expected to continue moving southeast over the next 36-48 hours and should pass close to Fiji, potentially bringing hurricane-force winds to the more populated southern island of Viti Levu on Wednesday.

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