TONGA has declared a state of emergency as the Pacific island kingdom braces for a direct hit by a powerful cyclone that is threatening to become a Category Five superstorm.
Severe Tropical Cyclone Gita has already created havoc in neighbouring Samoa and is gathering pace as it approaches Tonga.
Acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika issued a nationwide alert, saying he was “satisfied that an emergency is happening or is about to happen.”
The Fiji Meteorological Service predicted Gita will become a Category Five storm — the top of the scale — before reaching Tonga at 7pm Monday night (5pm AEDT).
It is already packing gusts of 275km/h as it sits off the east coast of the country’s most populous island, Tongatapu.
Tonga’s Fua’amotu Weather Forecasting Centre warned residents could expect “very destructive hurricane force winds”.
— Stu Ostro (@StuOstro) February 11, 2018
— Seti Afoa (@SetiAfoa) February 10, 2018
— Talia (@ladypalamo) February 9, 2018
My heart is with #Tonga today as #CycloneGita is expected to make landfall as a Cat 5 tonight.. Solidarity with the beautiful people of #Tonga as they make final preparations. pic.twitter.com/dprm8saNwz
— Aleta Miller (@AletaFMiller) February 12, 2018
Cyclone Gita pummelled Samoa and American Samoa, about 900km to the northeast, over the weekend, causing widespread flooding and damage, particularly in Samoan capital Apia.
Around 300 people were evacuated and many remain without clean, running water or power.
Donald Trump on Sunday declared an emergency in American Samoa, a US territory. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide equipment and resources.
Philip Duncan, chief forecaster at New Zealand’s Weather Watch service, said that current modelling showed Gita was lining up a direct hit on Tongatapu.
“That’s a very serious situation, the capital (Nuku’alofa) is there, there’s over 75,000 people,” he said. “It’s pretty rare to see the perfect circle, the centre of that storm, going right over the top of such a small island.”
The central air pressure of #Gita is 930hPa & could drop into the 920s in the next 24 hours. This is a very serious, powerful, storm. Red star indicates #Tonga‘s capital. Winds to ramp up after sunset which is at 7pm (Tonga is in the same time zone as #NZ in summer)
4pm Monday: pic.twitter.com/Sbtf8nd12F
— Philip Duncan (@PhilipDuncan) February 12, 2018
— 🌻🐲🌻 (@aiouvae) February 11, 2018
— 🌴🌺🌞🌊✨ (@teinemaiSamoaaa) February 10, 2018
‘MAJOR DAMAGE’ FEARED
Mr Duncan said the cyclone could cause major damage even if it remained offshore. “If it moves just a little bit north or south it may not make technical landfall but it’s severe weather, winds up to 230km/h, waves over 10 metres at sea and a storm surge over a metre on top of that,” he said.
Truckloads of troops were out helping people batten down as Nuku’alofa prepared for the cyclone and evacuation centres were opened across the kingdom.
The information ministry advised anyone considering moving to the shelters to leave early, saying travel would not be possible when the eye of the storm passes over Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people.
Otherwise, people should stay at home and ride out the wild weather, it said. “Every family should have an emergency kit packed in their homes,” it said. “Everyone should be mindful of what might cause damage within their homes such as large trees that can potentially damage a house.”
Schools and workplaces were closed ahead of the storm and the Red Cross said residents were racing to identify strong buildings to be used for evacuations and to clean up debris such as loose wood or metal that could turn into dangerous missiles in powerful winds.
The Metservice has also warned of huge coastal swells and flooding of low-lying areas.
Tonga Meteorological Service director Ofa Fa’anunu said Gita would be one of the strongest cyclones to ever hit the kingdom.
“We are looking at major structural damage,” he warned, pointing out that the low-lying capital was particularly vulnerable to storm surges.
Cyclones are common in the Pacific at this time of year, with top-of-the-scale Category Five systems proving highly destructive when they make landfall.
Cyclone Winston killed 44 people in Fiji in 2016, and Cyclone Pam claimed 11 lives and damaged 65,000 homes in Vanuatu in 2015.
Another Category Five storm, Cyclone Ian, hit Tonga’s sparsely-populated Ha’apai islands in 2014, causing extensive damage and leaving thousands homeless.
— With AP