CARSON CITY, Nev. - The Nevada National Guard's adjutant general, Brig. Gen. William Burks, was in the Nevada Guard's State Partnership Program delegation in Tonga during Tropical Cyclone Gita on Monday. The entire delegation is accounted for and no injuries are reported.
According to the New York Times, Gita was a category 4 cyclone, the worst to pass over Tonga's main islands in 60 years. With its winds up to 145 mph, the storm flattened Tonga's Parliament building
"There is total devastation over the entire island (of Tongatapu)," Burks said Wednesday from Tonga's capital of Nuku'alofa. "It was a severe, severe storm. Nobody expected it to turn south toward the main islands of Tonga or expected it to become such a serious category of cyclone.
"In terms of sheer destruction, it's up there with anything I've seen."
As the adjutant general, Burks is the senior uniformed Nevada Guard officer responsible for formulating, developing and coordinating all programs and plans affecting the more than 4,000 Nevada Guard Soldiers and Airmen.
The Nevada National Guard and the Kingdom of Tonga have been partners in the National Guard State Partnership Program since 2014. Within the program, the Nevada Guard manages exchanges between Nevada military and civilian subject-matter experts and Tongan defense forces and government officials.
Burks and two other Nevada Guard State Partnership officials had been in Fiji from Feb. 7-10 for meetings at the U.S. Embassy in Suva, Fiji. (The U.S. Embassy is Suva is the central embassy for Fiji, Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu.) The delegation then traveled to Tonga on Feb. 10 for a five-day State Partnership Program exchange.
"We were monitoring the beginning phases of the cyclone and then we began to track it heading farther south," Burks said. "At the last minute, it went south.
"Then, it was time to batten down the hatches."
The Nevada delegation holed up in a hotel on the north side of Tongatapu near the capital. Even the general had to man a mop as water seeped into the upper stories of the hotel.
"It was amazing how the guests and staff banded together during the storm," Burks said.
Burks said he's noted significant progress in the clean-up process in just two days.
"The Tongan people can take pride in their resiliency," said Burks, who was set to return to Nevada Thursday.
Burks said that, due to proximity, New Zealand and Australia will be the first countries to provide assistance to Tonga. He said that when the official request from Tonga for assistance from the United States is received, the Nevada National Guard will be ready.
"When the whole list of protocols have been met and we are asked to help, we'll be the first to go," Burks said.