12 Feb 2018

Severe cyclones a part of life in Pacific

2:22 pm on 12 February 2018

Tonga is bracing for the full force of Cyclone Gita this evening, with memories still fresh of another category five storm which caused major damage four years ago.

Cyclone Ian hit the outer Ha'apai island group in 2014, leaving thousands homeless.

Massive damage remains after Cyclone Ian.

Massive damage remains after Cyclone Ian. Photo: Richard Small

By 7 pm Tonga time, Gita is forecast to become a Category Five cyclone, the highest level in the region's cyclone grading system.

It's making a beeline for the main island of Tongatapu, home to the capital Nuku'alofa and most of the population.

Gita will be the fourth category 5 cyclone to hit the Pacific since 2015. With each one, homes, infrastructure and livelihoods of the Pacific Islands in its path stand to be devastated.

Scientists have linked climate change to increased severity of cyclones, although not necessarily the frequency of cyclones.

Direct hit looming

A direct hit by Gita on Tonga will mean another major recovery effort for the small island state.

Following Cyclone Ian, the reconstruction effort on Ha'apai was plagued with delays and an investigation was ordered into missing funds meant to go towards the rebuild.

Gita is the first high magnitude cyclone to hit the Pacific island region this season which runs from November to April.

NIWA predicted eight to ten in the southwest Pacific, and up to six of them to be Category 3 or higher.

Cyclone Winston was the last Category 5 cyclone to hit the region, scoring a direct hit on Fiji in February 2016, killing 44 people, displacing tens of thousands and causing US$1.4 billion worth of damage.

Today the rebuild is still underway and many children are still learning in tents as the country tries to build back stronger.

At least 15 people died a year earlier in Vanuatu when the "monster" Cyclone Pam hit, causing widespread damage.

Traditional means of coping

The people of the Pacific are well used to the ravages of cyclones, and have traditional means of coping when monster storms approach.

They know the best parts of their island in which to shelter, which trees are the strongest, and which caves can be used in the case of an emergency.

Even the traditional Pacific fale-type home structure can offer more flexibility and resilience in a big storm than more modern, ramshackle homes built with corrugated iron and planks of wood and the ubiquitous and sturdy churches make safe boltholes in the eye of a storm.

Resilient concrete homes are more commonplace these days in Nuku'alofa but still, as borne out during Cyclone Winston in Fiji, they are not failsafe.

Small island states, increasingly at risk from more frequent and intense storms zigzagging their way across the Pacific, have shown resilience in picking up the pieces after big storms hit.

But there is no avoiding extensive damage not only to homes but roads, schools and other infrastructure when a cyclone passes over an island.

Devastating cyclones are just another pressure for the small, aid reliant countries of the Pacific.