WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Tropical Cyclone Gita hammered the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tonga with Category 4 intensity in what may be the most powerful tropical cyclone in memory to strike the islands, the Weather Channel reported.
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.
A tropical cyclone is the same type of storm as a hurricane.
Some people in Tonga had nailed wood over their windows while others evacuated as they braced for the cyclone that was due to hit Monday night.
The Pacific island nation had declared a state of emergency in anticipation of Cyclone Gita.
Before the storm hit, publisher Pesi Fonua said there were dark clouds gathering overhead in the capital, Nuku’alofa, on Monday evening but few other signs that the storm was coming.
He said people were busy nailing boards and roofing iron to their homes to try to limit the damage from coconuts, trees and other debris the cyclone would likely send flying.
The storm has strengthened since hitting Samoa and American Samoa last week, where it caused damage to buildings, widespread power outages and flooding.
President Donald Trump on Sunday declared an emergency in American Samoa, a U.S. territory. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide equipment and resources to help the 50,000 residents recover.
Tongan authorities said every family should have an emergency kit and those in flood-prone areas should move into evacuation centers. Authorities were urging others to keep of the roads and stay indoors.
Chris Brandolino, a scientist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, said the eye of the cyclone was expected to travel just south of the capital but could directly hit it. He said the cyclone was relatively compact, which means its path of destruction should be narrow.
Brandolino said flooding and coastal inundation would likely cause as many problems as the damage from the winds. He said that after hitting Tonga, the cyclone was forecast to travel west before slowly dissipating.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her government was on standby and ready to help Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people.
Aid agency Care Australia said it was also ready to assist. “With a storm this big, we have to prepare for the worst,” said emergency response manager Stefan Knollmayer.