Tropical Cyclone Tino is now category three, classed as "severe". Image / Fiji MetService

This story by RNZ.co.nz is republished with permission

People on Tonga’s main islands are being told to stay home and secure their properties, as Cyclone Tino moves closer to the country.

The storm was upgraded to a category three on Saturday morning, as it continued to intensify in the waters near Fiji’s Lau group, with sustained winds predicted to increase to as much as 130km/h in the coming hours.

The cyclone showed little sign of relenting, said Stephen Meke, a forecaster at the Fiji Meteorological Service, and was on track to pass very close to, or even directly over, Tonga’s main island Tongatapu and the low-lying capital, Nuku’alofa.

“The track we have this morning, the centre is very close to Nuku’alofa and could make landfall over Nuku’alofa,” Mr Meke said. “Tonga might get the full brunt of it.”

In Tonga, authorities were preparing for Tino’s arrival. Government offices were ordered closed early on Friday afternoon, and there was an eerie calm on Saturday morning, said Paula Ma’u, the chief executive of the country’s emergency office.

A hurricane warning had been issued for Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai and ‘Eua, the government said, and all flights for Saturday had been cancelled.

If it follows its predicted track, Tino would be the second direct hit taken by Tongatapu in as many years. In February 2018, category five Cyclone Gita caused widespread devastation, destroying many houses, wiping out crops, and reducing the former parliament building into a splintered pile of rubble.

Tonga’s Parliament was severely damaged by Cyclone Gita in 2018. Panels of wood, metal poles, and concrete are still scattered around the site. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Two years on, the recovery is still very much underway. Several schools are still using tents for classrooms, homes have patchwork repairs, and crops have been struggling to recover in the aftermath.

But Mr Ma’u said lessons had been learned from previous cyclones, and he believed they were as prepared as can be.

“Go home. Prepare family and houses for the cyclone,” he said in an interview on Saturday. “Lessons [have] been learned from the previous cyclones, so I think we’re pretty much prepared for the cyclone coming.”

The cyclone is moving towards Tonga having brushed past Fiji’s northern islands on Thursday and Friday. On Vanua Levu, the country’s second-largest island, reports emerged of flooding, roads and crops being washed away, and some houses being damaged.

About 1,600 people spent the night in evacuation centres as a precaution, the government-owned broadcaster FBC said, and assessments were underway to ascertain what help was needed.

After reports that two people were missing on Friday night, the authorities on Saturday said there were no reports of injuries or casualties in Fiji.

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