France’s Reunion Island has been placed on red alert, its highest level warning, as Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Belal makes landfall on the Indian Ocean island, bringing with it destructive winds, torrential rain, and high seas.
Storm Barrels Towards Reunion with 185 mph Winds
Belal rapidly intensified over the warm waters of the Indian Ocean on Sunday, its winds increasing from 140 mph to over 180 mph in just 24 hours. As of 8 AM local Reunion time on Monday morning, Belal was located just 65 miles east-southeast of the island, moving westwards at 14 mph, according to the latest warning from Météo-France La Réunion.
Cyclone Belal Vital Statistics as of 8 AM Monday:
Location: 65 miles ESE of Reunion Island
Maximum Winds: 185 mph (category 5)
Movement: W at 14 mph
Minimum Pressure: 897 mb
With winds over 180 mph, experts say Belal is the strongest storm to directly impact Reunion Island since Cyclone Firinga in 1989.
Island on Lockdown, Residents Brace for Impact
The red alert level for Reunion Island was issued Sunday evening in anticipation of Belal, prompting emergency preparations across the island. Residents have been instructed to complete protective measures and confine themselves indoors in the most solid room of their homes.
Many residents spent Sunday boarding up windows and stockpiling supplies before hunkering down. Long lines were seen at gas stations, grocery stores, and hardware shops as people scrambled to prepare.
All roads on Reunion have been closed since 4 AM Monday morning. The island’s ports and airport have shut down, with at least 27 flights already cancelled. No boats are permitted to leave harbor.
Authorities estimate as many as 800,000 Reunion residents may feel impacts from the powerful cyclone before it passes.
Catastrophic Impacts Expected as Eyewall Nears Shore
The eye of Belal is expected to pass just north of Reunion Island as the storm curves southward on Tuesday. However, the island sits directly in the path of Belal’s eyewall – the ring of violent thunderstorms surrounding the calm eye – which is where the strongest winds, heaviest rainfall, and most perilous storm surge impacts are focused.
Météo-France warns that destructive winds up to 200 mph could buffet the island for hours as Belal’s eyewall sweeps over. Torrential rain totals over 3 feet are likely over mountainous terrain, with widespread flooding imminent. Storm surge up to 16 feet above normal tides could inundate coastal communities.
Power outages due to wind damage may occur island-wide says the local power authority EDF SEI, with supply interruptions likely to stretch for days or weeks given the severity of the expected damage.
Concerns Over Coronavirus Complications
Reunion public health officials have expressed worries about disruptions to coronavirus care as the health system pivots to respond to cyclone impacts. With roads impassable, flooding damage to facilities, and power interruptions, maintaining existing COVID-19 operations will prove extremely difficult throughout the storm’s passage.
Patients are being discharged from hospitals where possible to free up beds, while continuing cases are being consolidated. But space remains limited, and moving patients or getting needed supplies during the storm will not be possible.
Officials are also worried about the formation of crowded public shelters, which create infection risks. Mask distribution efforts are underway, but will likely have limited effectiveness given the shelters were organized on short notice.
After the Storm Passes
Belal is forecast to continue westward across Reunion Island through early Tuesday before recurving southwards. Though winds and rain should gradually ease through Tuesday, dangerous flooding, mudslides, power outages and downed trees and power lines will remain major issues in Belal’s wake.
It may take days or weeks to fully restore power and reopen roads after a storm of this magnitude. Some communities may find water, food, fuel, and medical supplies in short supply until transportation infrastructure can be repaired.
The full extent of damage, injuries and possible fatalities is unlikely to be known until the worst of the weather has passed on Tuesday and emergency teams can thoroughly survey the impact zone.
Once the storm moves away, France has prepositioned aid on nearby Mauritius to assist. However, Reunion will likely find itself in an extended recovery period. Officials worry additional heavy rainfall expected later this week could complicate rebuilding efforts.
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