Monster storm gathers strength off Tonga

Nuku'alofa (Tonga) (AFP) –


Tropical Cyclone Harold surged back into a scale-topping Category Five storm Thursday as it sideswiped Tonga after leaving a trail of destruction across the South Pacific.

The island kingdom declared a state of emergency late Wednesday as the storm bore down, warning of destructive winds and massive sea surges.

Police said early Thursday that power had been cut in parts of the country and howling winds were gathering pace amid heavy rain after Harold surprised meteorologists with its sudden strengthening.

The cyclone killed 27 people in the Solomons late last week before barrelling southeast to directly hit Vanuatu as a Category Five, obliterating entire towns in the northern provinces.

There have been no reports of deaths in Vanuatu, with emergency workers saying many residents in the hardest hit areas were able to take shelter.

Harold weakened slightly to a still-formidable Category Four as it lashed Fiji Wednesday but hopes the storm was dissipating were dashed as it regathered momentum heading towards Tonga.

"It's been a tricky one to predict," meteorologist Bill Singh from New Zealand's Metservice told AFP.

"We knew the track it was going to take but initially everyone thought it was just going to be Cat 3 or 4 but as it progressed over open warm waters it deepened."

The storm is expected to head away from Tonga onto the open ocean later Thursday but head forecaster Philip Duncan said there were no certainties.

"It's almost unheard of to see a cyclone tracking south away from the equator, weakening, then suddenly returning back to Cat 5 so far south," he said.

The Red Cross said damage assessments were still underway in Fiji and Vanuatu, where communications to remote islands were cut for days.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has complicated disaster relief efforts, with Vanuatu reluctant to open its international borders as it seeks to remain one of the few countries without any confirmed cases of the virus.

Fiji has 15 cases and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the virus and cyclone meant "our economy and our people have been dealt two body blows to start the year".

"This storm must not compromise our coronavirus containment efforts, lest we risk damage far more painful than the aftermath of any cyclone," he said.