Tropical Cyclone Gita Hammers Tonga: 30 Injured, Homes Destroyed

Chris Dolce
Published: February 13, 2018

Tongans were expected to continue their recovery Wednesday morning from the powerful Tropical Cyclone Gita, which lashed the South Pacific nation with damaging winds and flooding.

No deaths have been confirmed from the storm, but at least 30 people were injured, three seriously, Tonga Police spokesperson Sia Adams tweeted. Damage was widespread, and the islands were reeling after a direct hit from one of the strongest storms to impact the nation in modern history.

"I could see the people across the road, their roof was flapping around the house, it was trying to disintegrate," Mary Fonua, managing editor of the news website Matangi Tonga, told Radio New Zealand. "I think a lot of people were very desperate (Monday night)."

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In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Tonga National Emergency Office spokesman Graham Kenna said countless homes had been damaged by the storm when it hit Tonga, and officials had not yet been able to restore power and water service to its citizens. Most of the damage ranged from roofs blown away to fallen trees and flooding, Newshub reported.

"I've been involved in disaster responses for 30-plus years and it's the worst situation I have been in," Kenna told Radio New Zealand.

About 40 percent of the homes in the capital city of Nuku'alofa lost their roofs in the storm, an emergency management official told Sky News, as reported by Newshub. On the northern end of the city, near the coastline, Tonga's century-old Parliament house was destroyed.

"Successive legislatures over the years have suggested building a new Parliament House, and I guess that'll be a necessity now," Tongan noble lawmaker Lord Fusitu'a told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., as reported by the Associated Press.

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New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters announced an initial aid fund will provide $540,000 for water, shelter and sanitation, according to 1NEWS.

"We stand ready to provide additional support as the extent of the damage becomes clear," Peters said in a statement obtained by 1NEWS. "Given the force of this Cyclone all signs point to a lengthy clean-up effort and our thoughts are with the Government and people of Tonga as they come to terms with the scale of this disaster."

Crews planned to do an assessment of the damage, but roads were blocked by debris and downed trees and power lines, according to Radio New Zealand. Officials said about 5,000 people remained in shelters Tuesday night.

"We are seeing shops that the rooftops have been uprooted all their goods are exposed. We are seeing floods and also a lot of branches and a lot of electric lines," Red Cross volunteer Victoria Helot told Radio New Zealand. "We have talked to some women this morning their priorities are water, blankets and food.

"It is a big issue because this is their livelihood and it is like we have to start all over again," she added. "You know there is no electricity, there is no water."

The eye of Gita passed just south of the low-lying Tongatapu group of islands in southern Tonga Monday night local time with maximum sustained winds estimated at 145 mph, according to the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Tonga is 18 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Daylight Time.

From midnight to about 2 a.m. local time Tuesday morning, conditions were at their worst, and in Nuku'alofa, residents remained hunkered down in structures they hoped would survive the storm.

"Very frightening, we tried to tell ourselves we were fine but we were not, you know," Virginie Dourlet told 1NEWS. "I guess we were mostly concerned about the roof but actually we were concerned for all the wrong reasons."

As the storm raged overnight, hundreds of residents called the emergency office for help, Kenna also told Radio New Zealand.

A state of emergency was declared in Tonga by acting prime minister Semisi Sika because of the storm, and shelters were opened to house evacuees, according to the Guardian. The nation of 107,000 residents consists of more than 100 islands, but a majority of the population lives on Tongatapu Island, which was battered by the storm.

"It's screaming like a freight train and it just keeps getting noisier and noisier," 1NEWS reporter Barbara Dreaver told the station while she sheltered in a hotel room in Nuku'alofa. "Compared to storms at home (in New Zealand), this just doesn't compare. It's like someone screaming out of control, the palm trees are bent over sideways, there's a lot of variables in play. You're completely at its mercy."

The storm's track raked the northern eyewall across the Tongan islands of Tongatapu and 'Enu. Power was switched off in parts of Tonga, and the Tonga Meteorological and Coast Radio Services office in Fua'amotu sustained damage, forcing the office to hand off forecasting duties to Fijian meteorologists, 1NEWS reported Tuesday morning.

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According to the Fiji Meteorological Service, Gita's central pressure was estimated at 930 millibars late Monday night, stronger than Hurricane Harvey when it made landfall along the Texas coast in late August 2017.

According to NOAA's historical hurricane tracks, only one other Category 4 tropical cyclone had passed within 200 nautical miles of Nuku'alofa in modern records, January 2014's Cyclone Ian.

Ian hit the Ha'apai islands of Tonga hardest but passed east of the most heavily populated island of Tongatapu.

Gita previously caused damage in the South Pacific after brushing Samoa and American Samoa late last week with flooding rain and damaging winds.

In American Samoa, officials have begun a full assessment of the damage from the storm, the AP reported. Public schools have been shut down for the week.

The damage to homes and utilities in the U.S. territory prompted President Donald Trump to declare a state of emergency Sunday evening. The declaration will make emergency funding and resources available for the 50,000 residents on the island.


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