The small Pacific island nation of Tonga woke up to devastation after a hurricane-strength storm tore through.
Tropical Cyclone Gita is reportedly the most powerful to ever hit Tonga—most recently in the spotlight at the Winter Olympics thanks to the latest scene-stealing appearance of Pita Taufatofua, the muscular, shirtless, oiled-up flag bearer.
Gita passed just south of the main island of Tongatapu as a Category-4 storm with peak winds of 145 mph. According to the most recent update from the Fiji Meteorological Service, Gita was about 200 km east-southeast Ono-I-Lau, and taking aim at Fiji.
Gita’s eye passed just south of the Tongan islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua.
This gif from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), using Japanese weather satellite imagery, shows the size of the storm compared to the islands of Tonga (outlined in pink):
Though the eye of Gita did not make landfall on Tonga, the storm’s impact was especially devastating because the 288-sq-mile island (smaller than New York City) remained in the eye-wall, where the strongest winds and heaviest rains are located, for several hours.
However, the tiny country escaped the most worst of the destruction because Gita hit during low tide, so there was no storm surge.
Forecasters say the storm could strengthen to Category 5 as moves towards Fiji, and could hit the southern Lau islands with gusts as and gusts as high as 295 kph (183 mph).
Gita is then forecast to take a turn southward, and track toward New Zealand. Gita must first pass through colder water temperatures, which likely will cause it to lose much of its strength.
Widespread destruction in Tonga
Tonga has been without power, so official reports are only just starting to come in. Early reports suggest that 75% of homes in the capital of Nukuʻalofa have been destroyed.
“I’ve been involved in disaster responses for 30 plus years and it’s the worst situation I have been in,” Graham Kenna of Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office told Radio NZ. According to Graham, almost every home in Tonga has been damaged, mostly from fallen trees and flooding.
“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,” Barbra Dreaver a New Zealand reporter traveling in Tonga told TVNZ1.
Over the weekend, Gita caused major flooding and wind damage in neighboring Samoa. The storm caused major damage to homes and utilities, though there have been no reports of injury or death so far.