By PAUL YANDALL and AGENCIES
New Year's celebrations were cancelled in Tonga last night as thousands of islanders and holidaymakers braced for Cyclone Waka, bearing down on the kingdom with winds of up to 250 km/h.
The Fiji-based Nadi Tropical Cyclone Centre said destructive winds and phenomenal seas would hit Tonga's northern islands as Waka blasted through the region.
"These will be hurricane-force winds with the potential to cause severe damage," said centre director Rajendra Prasad.
Waka was expected to hit Tonga's northern archipelago of Vava'u, the location of Tonga's popular tourist resorts, about 2 am with winds gusting up to 250 km/h and a 6m swell. Many of Tonga's islands are low-lying atolls.
Tongan Beach Resort manager Natalie Harrison said last night from the tourist town of Neiafu, on Vava'u, that celebrations had been cancelled as hotels and homes prepared for a battering.
"We're dealing with 120 km/h winds right now and they're telling us it's going to get worse, so it's a matter of battening down and hoping for the best," she said.
Shane Sampson, of Auckland, said he and his wife, Jacqueline, were secure in their concrete bungalow at the resort, but planned to move into the hotel's kitchen if conditions got much worse.
"We're all hoping it won't be a terrifying New Year's up here," he said. "It's been gradually getting worse [yesterday] afternoon with 5m swells out there right now."
The couple were to return home today after a week-long holiday, but all airports in Tonga were closed yesterday. All charter boats and ferries were also cancelled and fishing boats and yachts were called to the nearest port to shelter. Paul Cheesman, chief meteorological officer for Tonga MetService, said Waka struck the far north island of Nuiafo'ou on Sunday, wrecking homes and ripping up trees.
"We have not had any injuries yet but it is still gathering strength," he said. "We are hoping its path will keep it east of [the main island group of] Tongatapu, but we are expecting storm-force winds here."
The Tongan capital, Nuku'alofa, is expected to be whipped with heavy rain and sea flooding before the cyclone leaves the region tomorrow morning.
Tongan police spokesman Corporal Kotoli Siali said the state-run radio network would broadcast reports around the clock to update the 100,000 inhabitants of the kingdom's scattered islands on the storm's progress.
The Tropical Cyclone Centre issued storm warnings for the area on Sunday morning after Waka started forming between Samoa and Fiji, close to the French islands of Wallis and Futuna.
New Zealand MetService lead forecaster John Crouch said the service was monitoring the storm but did not expect it to affect the weather here.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman Jocelyn Prasad said the Government's post in Tonga was monitoring the storm and would assess whether help was needed once it passed.
"We will also act if we get a request from the Tongan Government," she said, "and, of course, our response will depend on the scope of the damage."