19 Feb 2016

Cyclone Winston now directly north of Tonga's Vava'u

1:07 pm on 19 February 2016
Damage in Vava'u after Cyclone Winston

Damage in Vava'u caused by cyclone Winston earlier this week Photo: Oxfam NZ

The director of Tonga's disaster management office Leveni Aho says Cyclone Winston is now to the north of Vava'u and the impact on the northern island group appears not to be as great as feared.

"The whole thing is not over yet but at this point in time it is a little more comforting to say that it went further north than Vava'u, so I mean it is drifting west, directly west, so it's giving a bit of space between that and Vava'u at the moment. There is still some damages reported. We have people in evacuation centres, but in terms of infrastructure and essential service we still maintain communications, the hospital is still functional, power is being maintained in most of Neiafu, the main town the capital in Vava'u."

Leveni Aho said about 2500 people sought shelter as a precaution on Vavau' last night but he expects most will be able to return to their homes by Saturday.

He said the airport is likely to be out of action until tomorrow after a beacon was taken down prior to the storm as a precaution and is yet to be re-installed.

Winston passed Vava'u earlier in the week as a Category Two storm that damaged crops and caused power outages, but has since made an about-turn and is now a Category Four cyclone headng near the group in a westerly direction towards Fiji.

Power lines down after Cyclone Winston hit Vava'u

Damage in Vava'u caused by cyclone Winston earlier this week Photo: Oxfam NZ

Locals already heading to evacuation centres

The Catholic aid and development agency Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand has trained volunteers who previously responded to the devastation caused by Cyclone Ian in 2014, who are now assisting Vava'u people prepare for Winston.

Caritas' Senior Humanitarian Programmes Coordinator Mark Mitchell said people in Vava'u have already moved into evacuation centres in preparation.

"Certainly what I'm hearing so far is that some members of the community have already started to go into evacuation centres, and I'm fairly sure that our volunteers will be assisting in that process of just making sure that people are comfortable and ready to sit out the storm."

Tonga police said Friday afternoon via twitter that 60 evacuation centres have been activated, 52 in Vava'u and 8 in Ha'apai. They said there are a total of 2702 people in evacuation centres.

Mark Mitchell said it's been particularly difficult to track Winston and forecast its direction.

"It does have a tremendous reach. Certainly the feeling is that the cyclonje is being felt in Vava'au and possibly into Ha'apai in the south, and all the way up to Niua Topu Tapu as well, with gale force winds."