The people of Tonga are preparing for what’s being described as the strongest cyclone to ever hit the island kingdom.
It’s a situation being made more stressful by the uncertainty of what Tropical Cyclone Gita will bring and efforts to prepare being hampered by religious laws closing trading on Sundays.
Gita is expected to hit the tiny country sometime between 7pm on Monday and Tuesday morning. About 11am Monday, a state of emergency was declared ahead of the category 4 cyclone’s arrival.
Tagata Pasifika reporter John Pulu is in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, staying in the Tanoa International Dateline Hotel – right on the waterfront.
He was at a press conference on Monday morning when the state of emergency was announced.
“At the moment … Tonga is in preparation for what is being described as the strongest cyclone to ever hit [the country],” Pulu said.
The fact it was likely to hit overnight – combined with the potential for it to knock out power and communications networks – made it even more frightening.
“We don’t know how strong the cyclone is going to be. That’s the pain of all of this.”
With the powerful storm came “potentially a loss of human life and huge damage to buildings,” Pulu said.
“The advice from the minister in charge of the emergency department is that everyone go home and prepare.”
People were told to seek shelter in Mormon churches and school halls present in most villages as they were the most robust structures.
There were also instructions to keep track of where people had gone in the case of fatalities.
But efforts to prepare were hamstrung on Sunday due to a religious ban on trading.
One hardware store opened for a short time, with people travelling from the other side of the island to stock up, only for police to close the shop, Pulu said.
When asked if the rules preventing trade on a Sunday were frustrating given the situation, Pulu said: “absolutely.”
Making an exception in emergencies was an issue to consider after the cyclone passed.
Among the infrastructure that could be affected was Nuku’alofa’s central business district and the royal palace – both located on the waterfront.
Low-lying and coastal villages were also threatened.
Pulu said while some of the newer buildings were well-constructed, a lot of the housing was traditional and not likely to hold up well.
Some stores and houses were being boarded up ahead of Gita’s arrival.
Regardless of the efforts, Pulu had his doubts.
“I don’t think the country is quite prepared for something that is supposed to be the strongest on record…
“I think some [people] seem to have that island mentality of ‘we’ve been through this before, we know what it’s like’. I don’t know if they are prepared…”
To make matters worse, there’s been an outbreak of dengue fever in Tonga this summer.
There had been 50 cases and one death, Pulu said. That death was 12-year-old Auckland girl, Toafei Telefoni. She’d been on a family holiday.
She died in hospital on January 24, six days before she had been due to arrive home in New Zealand.
MetService tropical cyclone forecaster Micky Malivuk said Gita had the potential to grow to a category 5 cyclone, but that was not expected to happen until later Wednesday into Thursday, when it would be on its way out from southern Fiji and on its towards the south of New Caledonia.
Its track on Monday morning suggested it would pass close to the main Tongan island of Tongatapu. The centre would probably pass just to the south, with the area just to the north exposed to the strongest winds.
“If you’re just a little bit away from the centre, that’s where the strongest winds are,” Malivuk said. Tongatapu would be “pretty much exposed to the full brunt of the cyclone”.
Gita was starting to form an eye. “It just implies it’s becoming a very intense storm when you have an eye forming.”
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