American Samoa residents buy water, flashlights to prepare for Tropical Cyclone Rene

Thursday, February 11, 2010

American Samoa braces for Tropical Cyclone Rene

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — A powerful tropical storm churned toward American Samoa and surrounding islands Friday as residents still recovering from last year’s deadly tsunami braced for another onslaught.

Tropical Cyclone Rene is expected to strengthen in the next 12 hours, forecasters at the Nadi Tropical Cyclone Center Fiji said, and could also threaten Samoa, Tokelau Islands, Tonga and Fiji.

The center has issued a gale watch warning for Samoa’s main island of Upolu, home to 135,000, where the September tsunami killed 183 people.

A hurricane warning was in effect for all islands of American Samoa starting early Friday morning. The National Weather Service said the storm was headed toward the less-populated Manu’a island, where it could bring winds of up to 75 mph by afternoon.

Schools were closed in the U.S. territory and islanders stocked up on bottled water, flashlights and candles.

The forecast warned of winds gusting to 72 mph over Samoa and the nearby Tokelau Islands in the next 12 to 24 hours, accompanied by heavy rain and thunderstorms, rough high seas and sea flooding along low-lying island coasts.

Meteorologist Mase Akapo Jr. said that as of 3 a.m. Friday the storm was about 70 miles east of Manu’a and about 130 miles east of Tutuila. The storm is moving southwest at 8 mph and should be near Manu’a Friday morning.

The storm will continue to move southwest and could hit Tutuila by 9 p.m., with wind gusts of up to 90 mph.

“At this point we expect the cyclone to come very close to Tutuila. However its very difficult at this time to pinpoint if the storm will make landfall,” Akapo said.

Authorities in Tonga, Nuie and the Cook Islands have warned residents to prepare for the storm.

New Zealand Red Cross was assisting preparations on those islands, “issuing warnings … securing infrastructure and making sure all satellite phones are charged and working,” international operations manager Andrew McKie said.

American Samoa territorial Gov. Togiola Tulafono directed all government offices to close Friday, except for emergency operations, health centers and the Department of Public Safety.

Leafa Ah Soon, store owner at Faleasao Village in Manu’a, said homes have been boarded up and residents have descended on her store to purchase supplies.

“It’s very calm at this point but residents believe that is the calm before a storm,” Ah Soon told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “At this point, we are just waiting.”

All public and private schools, including the American Samoa Community College, were shutting down Friday, but teachers and officials were asked to report to secure classrooms and other facilities.

The U.S. Coast Guard is advising vessels bound for Pago Pago to reroute.

Cyclone Heta, the last major cyclone to smash through the region, hit Samoa and American Samoa in January 2004, damaging more than 4,600 homes in American Samoa, the American Red Cross said at the time. It also devastated up to 90 percent of the crops on Samoa.

Associated Press Writer Ray Lilley contributed to this report from Wellington, New Zealand.

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