Tropical Cyclone Gita keeps strength after hammering Tonga

Feb. 13 (UPI) — Tropical Cyclone Gita passed through Fijian waters just south of the main islands early Tuesday after battering Tonga with wind and rain, leaving behind a trail of heavy physical damage.

The Category 4 cyclone is not expected to strengthen to Category 5, as weather models earlier predicted. Instead, forecasters said the cyclone should remain at Category 4 until later this week, but will pose no threat to populated centers on Fiji.

Hurricane warnings initially set for the Fijian islands of Ono-i-Lau and Vatoa on Tuesday were downgraded to a storm warning after Gita headed west, the Fiji National Disaster Management Office said. Officials said communication lines to Ono-i-Lau and Vatoa are down.

Tuesday, officials and residents on Tonga are assessing the damage inflicted — some substantial — by the tropical cyclone. No deaths were reported, but three people were seriously hurt.

Tonga National Emergency Office spokesman Graham Kenna said a number of homes were destroyed and officials haven’t yet restored water and power services. The roof of Tonga’s Parliament building was also destroyed.

“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.

According to the National Hurricane Center, a Category 4 storm could tear off most roofs and some exterior walls.

“Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months,” the NHC said.

Britain’s meteorological Met Office said Gita is maintaining its strength, and is the strongest cyclone to lash Tonga in 60 years.

The storm made landfall Monday night, passing just south of the low-lying Tongatapu islands with 145 mph winds. It caused significant damage in Samoa and American Samoa, where it made landfall last week as a Category 3 storm. The storm strengthened as it moved south.

A close-up of tropical #cyclone #Gita approaching #Tonga, from the #Himawari8 satellite. The powerful Category 4 storm battered the South Pacific island nation with 145 mph winds and heavy rain. See more:— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) February 12, 2018