The island nation of Tonga has declared a state of emergency as it braces for the wrath of Tropical Cyclone Gita, which is bearing down on the island nation after causing widespread damage in neighbouring Samoa and American Samoa.
The Tongan government declared a state of emergency on Monday morning to allow its 100,000 inhabitants to prepare for the category four storm. Gita is expected to intensify into a category five storm in the coming hours, and is heading for Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia later in the week.
The cyclone was expected to hit Tonga at around 8pm local time. Evacuation centres had instructed people to be inside by 6pm.
Polikalepo Kefu, Tonga’s Red Cross communications manager, said the majority of Tongans were “very fearful”.
“We have not had a category five cyclone strike the main island before and everyone is wondering how strong is will be,” he said.
“Tourists have mostly evacuated or they are staying in their hotels and being looked after by their heads of mission.”
The Tongan National Emergency Management Committee said that at its peak Gita was expected to pack winds of up to 200kph, and people living in flood-prone or low-lying areas should evacuate.
Acting prime minister Semisi Sika said the state of emergency was enacted to minimise loss of life and give people time to trim trees, secure furniture, and safely stow their pets before moving to an evacuation centre.
Evacuation centres had been set up on the main island of Tongatapu, as well as Vava’u, Ha’apai and ‘Eua.
Local news website Matangi Tonga reported emergency preparations were hampered by shops being closed on Sunday.
The Fiji Meteorological Service was warning Gita could strengthen to a category five storm by the time it made landfall with Tonga and that the worst of the storm was forecast to hit in the middle of the night on the main island.
Ofa Fa’anunu, Tonga MetService director, told RNZ the main island of Tonga was low-lying and the northern shores were vulnerable to storm surges.
“We are worried because it looks like it will hit in the night time as well but heavy rain and flooding is always a problem on the main island with water settling because it is quite flat,” he said.
Gita was a category one storm when in struck American Samoa and Samoa over the weekend, with parts of both islands remaining underwater. Thousands of people lost communications and electricity, and health authorities were concerned about the spread of water-borne diseases, as well as dengue fever.
Red Cross Pacific Communication manager Hanna Butler said the clean-up in Samoa and American Samoa could take weeks or months, but a full-scale assessment of the extent of the damage was still being pieced together.
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