Trees are stripped bare and roofs are torn off on the largest, most-populated islands of Tonga in the South Pacific. Tropical Cyclone Gita is on a rampage, whipping up destructive winds and storm surge in the Polynesian state.
A New Zealand reporter is in Tonga, holed up in a hotel. She told her home station that, on the small islands in the middle of the ocean, “you’re completely at its mercy.”
“Compared to storms at home, this just doesn’t compare,” Barbara Dreaver told the station. “It’s like someone screaming out of control, the palm trees are bent over sideways, there’s a lot of variables in play.”
The cyclone’s eye brushed south of the islands in southern Tonga on Monday night, local time. The U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center, which issues forecasts for the Western Pacific, said winds were around 145 mph at the time.
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Gita will remain at least a Category 4 – perhaps strengthen to a Category 5 – as it tracks west toward southern Fiji. It is not expected to directly strike Fiji’s populated islands. By Thursday, Tropical Cyclone Gita is expected to turn south away from Vanuatu and New Caledonia and continue to track out to sea.
The government of Tonga declared a state of emergency Monday. Tongans were “very fearful” before the storm struck, according to Tonga’s Red Cross communications manager, reported the Guardian.
While Tonga is solidly in the tropics of the Pacific Ocean, a Category 4 cyclone is not common. In its historical database of hurricane and cyclone tracks, NOAA only has record of one other storm Category 4 or stronger passing within 200 nautical miles of the capital, Nuku’alofa.