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Tonga is waking to severe damage from tropical cyclone Gita which has been called the worst storm to hit the country in 60 years.
Damage includes roofs torn off houses, trees knocked over and a church destroyed.
MetService meteorologist Michael Martens said the eye of the cyclone passed just to the south of the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa and by 5am Tuesday was about 150km southwest of the main island of Tongatapu.
“The eye didn't directly go over the capital but probably more severe for them was the eyewall.” The eyewall of the cyclone had crossed the main island, “basically the worst possibly conditions affected the main island”.
The official estimate was that Gita was a category 4 cyclone at midnight, with the worst of the storm hitting Tongatapu between 11pm and 2am.
NASA said the estimated sustained winds from the storm reached 230kmh, gusting to 278kmh.
Graham Kenna from Tonga's National Emergency Management Office told Radio New Zealand it was the worst situation he'd experienced in 30 years.
He said many of the “landmark” buildings in the capital, Nuku'alofa, were badly damaged or destroyed.
The country's meteorological office and national radio station were both taken offline.
The storm had been labelled the strongest cyclone to pass close to the islands of Tongatapu and Eua in 60 years by the British Met Office.
Mary Fonua, managing editor of news website Matangi Tonga, told RNZ it had been a “rough night”
Emergency crews were heading out on Tuesday morning to assess the damage.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the AM Show a NZ Defence Force plane was at the ready to go to Tonga, once it was known what was needed.
Early Tuesday, Gita was still affecting Tongatapu with northerly winds, but that was forecast to ease by mid-morning.
Gita was now heading for the most southern islands of Fiji, although the main islands of Fiji would not be affected.
“It's expected to intensify a bit more in the next 24 to 48 hours. Because it's quite a strong category 4 system it's probably going to reach category 5 today or tomorrow,” Martens said.
Hanna Butler from the Red Cross in Suva told RNZ the aid agency had pre-positioned emergency items in Tonga.
“As the sun rises and as our teams get out and about we'll have a better idea of the damage - but a Category 4 cyclone, we had a Category 5 two years ago here in Fiji with Cyclone Winston - we know that there's going to be a lot of damage to people's homes, infrastructure, comms is going to be down, waterlines and powerlines would've been damaged and ... people would've have had a really rough night, it's really traumatic going through something like that,” she told RNZ.
“Tonga Red Cross has pre-positioned aid items in Tongatapu and across the islands - all Red Crosses in the Pacific are stocked up and ready to go. It means that once we know what the impact is and who needs what, we can get things out to people quite quickly.”
About 11am Monday, a state of emergency was declared ahead of the storm's arrival.
Power was out for much of the island by 9pm, and Kiwis were desperately trying to keep in touch with family members in Tonga whose cell phone batteries were dying.
Wellingtonian Nastajia Bourke lost contact with her 43-year-old sister Joanna — who was alone in the family's home at Umusi — at around 11pm and was anxious about how she was faring.
"The last we heard was her saying the roof was starting to lift, that water was coming in through her roof and the front door, which must have blown open," she said.
Joanna's last tweet was around 10pm, and noted the cyclone was “getting mad”.
Joanna had been holed up with her dog, said Bourke, but the dog had run off in the storm and it was too dangerous to follow him outside.
She had travelled to Tonga, where she is based for part of the year, from New Zealand just two days earlier.
Bourke said her sister had barricaded the house on the advice of her builder brother, and packed an emergency evacuation bag in preparation for the storm.
“We'd all been talking non-stop on the group family chat before the storm, giving her comfort since she's over there alone,” she said.
“She was doing well. But once the power goes out, your emotions change and the fear sets in.”
Joanna's house was relatively modern and built to withstand harsh weather; as even that was letting in the storm, Nastajia said she was concerned for people in simpler homes.
“They will most likely lose everything, including their plantations — which are their bread and butter,” she said.
TVNZ correspondent Barbara Dreaver, who was in Tonga, tweeted at around 11pm that her hotel was shaking in the wind and rain was “coming in sideways”.
She told TVNZ that “compared to storms at home, this just doesn't compare.”
“You're completely at its mercy.”
“It's like someone screaming out of control, the palm trees are bent over sideways, there's a lot of variables in play.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has advised against “all tourist and other non-essential travel” to Tonga.
Twitter user Alex Duncan tweeted a video of palm trees thrashing in the powerful wind earlier in the evening.
Pulu had said while some of the newer buildings were well-constructed, a lot of the housing was traditional and not likely to hold up well.
SOURCE: STUFF NZ/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media