Tonga declared a state of emergency Monday as the Pacific island kingdom braces for a direct hit by a powerful cyclone that is threatening to become a Category Five superstorm.
Severe Tropical Cyclone Gita has already created havoc in neighbouring Samoa and is gathering pace as it approaches Tonga.
Acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika issued a nationwide alert, saying he was “satisfied that an emergency is happening or is about to happen”.
The Fiji Meteorological Service predicted Gita will become a Category Five storm — the top of the scale — before reaching Tonga Monday night.
It is already packing gusts of 275 kmh (170 mph) as it sits off the east coast of the country’s most populous island Tongatapu.
Tonga’s Fua’amotu Weather Forecasting Centre warned residents could expect “very destructive hurricane force winds”.
Gita slammed into Samoa overnight Friday, forcing the evacuation of some 200 people and causing widespread flooding, leaving many without power.
Philip Duncan, chief forecaster at New Zealand’s Weather Watch service, said that current modelling showed Gita was lining up a direct hit on Tongatapu.
“That’s a very serious situation, the capital (Nuku’alofa) is there, there’s over 75,000 people,” he said.
“It’s pretty rare to see the perfect circle, the centre of that storm, going right over the top of such a small island.”
Duncan said the cyclone could cause major damage even if it remained offshore.
“If it moves just a little bit north or south it may not make technical landfall but it’s severe weather, winds up to 230 kmh, waves over 10 metres at sea and a storm surge over a metre on top of that,” he said.