Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

My First Tropical Cyclone

on April 17, 2016

For some reason, I thought cyclone season in Tonga finished at the end of March, so in the first week of April, I wasn’t expecting to receive warning of possible cyclones. This being my first cyclone experience, I thought I would share with you the blow by blow…

On Monday, our in-country manager Dave (who is a weather buff and loves keeping on top of Tonga’s meteorological forecasts) sent word out to all the volunteers that there was a low pressure system in the area with potential to develop into a cyclone. We were warned at the least, it would bring some wind and rain. Not too scary yet, but one to keep an eye on.

That night, it rained consistently, then poured with rain again all day Tuesday. It was the heaviest rain I’ve had to ride in since arriving in Tonga. When myself and fellow Japanese volunteer Miho (who is also working with the Women’s Development Unit) turned up at work that morning drenched from cycling to work, we were told to go home and change out of our wet clothes, and “if you want, you stay there!”. Miho had no change of clothes with her so retired home for the day, but I had a dry skirt to change into from my wet leggings. I was still pressured to go home and change my top as my shoulders had gotten slightly wet through my rain jacket, but I explained I was meant to have a lunchtime meeting in town with the swimming club (who I have been helping teach swimming lessons after hours), and there was no point in riding home to change if I had to ride back in the rain later. They ended up getting the driver Enaki to take me home to change my top anyway and then brought me back to work to stay til lunch!

I worked the morning, and at lunch changed back into my wet clothes to ride through the ongoing downpour to the café where the swimming team normally meet. When I got there and couldn’t see anyone else, I checked my phone and saw the meeting was cancelled last minute due to bad weather! I had been told to work from home in the afternoon so that’s where I headed. Tonga really shuts down when it rains (despite the fact it is a place where rain is not at all rare for half of the year!). My colleague’s high school aged children once spent a rainy day in the office as school had apparently been cancelled for the day because of the weather!

On Wednesday, we woke to a cloudy morning but no rain finally. An early email from Dave confirmed the good news that the storm that was brewing had turned south and was weakening so no longer a threat. The bad news was that there was an actual cyclone, Zena, currently a category 1 storm hanging out near Vanuatu that was predicted to pass through Tonga on Friday or Saturday. We were advised to keep an eye on the weather updates and not to travel by sea or to any surrounding islands until it had passed. Wednesday was clear all day until the late afternoon when it started to pour again and continued all night. We came home to our rainwater tank overflowing and the neighbours enjoying a “faka’uha” (a Tongan word meaning “to bathe in the rain”!)


Overflowing gutters and water tank

On Thursday we woke to a dark and grey morning. It was very still with no rain, but the humidity lay thick around us. The update from Dave that morning was that Zena was now a category 2 cyclone and was moving much faster than expected. The predicted path had her set to hit Tongatapu directly that afternoon/evening. We were advised to get out and do any pre-cyclone preparations such as shopping and clearing loose item around the house early and to stay indoors during the storm.


Zena’s predicted path – right into Nuku’alofa

We were briefed on natural disasters in our pre-departure training as well as in our orientation in Tonga, but this was the first time we’d had to put theory into action. In the event of a cyclone, there is the possibility of some damage to infrastructure and short term loss of communications/utilities so generally we are expected to have about a week’s supply of non-perishable food and water, adequate gas supplies for the house, as well as essentials like batteries, matches/lighters, toilet paper in case of being unable to leave the house for a few days. The good thing is you usually have fair warning for a cyclone, unlike other natural disasters, (especially with a weather attentive guy like Dave as your in-country manager!)


Cyclone rations…

So Thursday morning Ben set off to get us some extra non-perishable food supplies and I rode in to work… The attitude at work on the dry morning of a predicted cyclone hit was very different to the one where it was pouring with rain! It was cheerful greetings and business as usual and so we took off to a Division meeting at the research farm, about a 30-minute drive from Nuku’alofa in an area with sketchy phone reception! This had me a little worried, as at least in the office I had internet access and could receive updates on the storm, as well as being just 10 minutes from home if I needed to get back! However my colleagues didn’t seem phased, and since they had all been through this before I figured I would be ok… I texted Ben to let me know of any important updates by text and hoped that my phone would have a bar or two of reception to receive it!

The meeting only lasted 1 hour (the last one I went to was 3 hours long…) before it was prematurely aborted as it was noted the wind was picking up and the rain was starting to fall again. We all loaded into the minibus and made our way slowly back through the wet and crowded streets to head office. The roads were chockers at about 11am, and the skies were dark and ominous. The radio was announcing cyclone warnings and updates in Tongan and then in English, interspersed with jaunty island tunes. They announced Zena was now a category 3 storm, schools and the wharf had been declared closed. The average windspeed was around 110km/hr, with momentary gusts of up to 155km/hr. There was a sense of nervous anticipation in the air.


Ominous sky and whipping winds on Vuna Road

One of my colleagues Snowden interrupted the radio reporting by telling Miho and I, “See, this is why you need to eat Tongan food- it makes you happy because you won’t blow away in the hurricane!” Everyone had a good laugh at that, quote of the week!

When we got back to head office, no-one wanted to let Miho and I ride home, and we were first to get lifts with Enaki with our bikes in the back of the ute. Everyone was looking out for the nervous palangis! Enaki loaded up the bikes and was saturated before we even left. He dropped us and our wheels off and then headed back to the office to take other staff members who didn’t have a lift home.


Driving home before the storm

Back at Casa de Pili (as our house is now known), everyone was home and battening down the hatches. We were closing the many louvered windows in the living areas that hadn’t been shut since Ben and I moved in (and noticing at the same time they were pretty dirty and we should probably clean them!). We had all our gadgets and lights charging, as the power was meant to be cut around 2pm. The radio was playing the customary island tunes (obviously it was cyclone update break time).


The downpour continues

I caught up on Dave’s latest email update which had us expecting Zena around 3pm, though she was moving fast (around 55km/hr, the last storm had been more like 30km/hr) so it was hoped she’d pass quickly. Time to sit tight and wait!


Ahhh Zena!

At about 1pm I was making lunch in the kitchen and we had decided to open the windows back up because the rain and wind had died down and it was getting really humid inside. I was looking out the window and I could see Champ lazing on the lawn in a patch of sunlight that was pushing through the clouds. I thought, how weird, this must be the old ‘calm before the storm’. But not long after that, the radio announced that the cyclone was weakening and was no longer looking like it was going to hit Tongatapu!

It was a little bit of an anticlimax after all that hype that we weren’t going to get to ride out the storm, though of course it is much better that the island was spared, as even a category 3 cyclone could have done some damage. The worst we have to deal with is several backstreets with yards turned into swamps and probably a heightened population of mosquitoes in the next few weeks!


Backyard lake in Nuku’alofa

Ben and I spent the afternoon of our ‘storm day’ napping. We got a little more rain during the afternoon, but it was super calm compared to the morning. When I woke up from my nap, I had received an email from SmartTraveller alerting me that Cyclone Zena was currently affecting Tonga and we should monitor the media and follow the advice of local authorities. At the exact same time, Dave had sent an email giving us the all clear – Zena had weakened to a category 1 and was passing to the south of us! Thanks SmartTraveller…

To wrap up our exhilarating day, that evening we enjoyed some of our cyclone rations with Naomi and Matt and ended the day with a ‘Piano-off’, where the goal was to take it in turns play a song from your collection featuring the piano. The trick was you weren’t allowed to listen to it beforehand and you only got 2 tries (though Matt introduced cheating to the game and soon everyone was pre-listening…)

It was a very strange week overall, being on stand-by the whole time with all of the anticipation and preparation turning into a lazy afternoon at home! Hopefully with the excitement of the title of this blog post and the underwhelming ending, you have all felt the same slight disappointment as we did when Zena stood us up :-p But luckily for Tonga, for about the 6th time this season I am told, the Kingdom has again escaped a direct hit from a cyclone. Hopefully they can keep up their record!


2 responses to “My First Tropical Cyclone

  1. Anthea says:

    Yes, I am sufficiently disappointed. No cyclone damage and you weren’t even aware of the earthquake!

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