Tropical Cyclone Rene brings rain, wind but misses American Samoa, turns toward Tonga

By Fili Sagapolutele, AP
Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cyclone misses American Samoa, turns toward Tonga

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — A powerful tropical storm missed American Samoa early Saturday morning, causing heavy rains and high winds but sparing more devastation to the U.S. territory battered by a deadly autumn tsunami.

Tropical Cyclone Rene was about 110 miles south of Pago Pago and moving southwest on a track that will take it into central and southern Tonga, said cyclone forecaster Alipate Waqaicelua of the Nadi Tropical Cyclone Center in Fiji. The storm center was about 485 miles northeast of the island chain.

Strong winds from the storm were still expected to batter American Samoa, which prompted forecasters to replace the hurricane warning with a gale warning that predicted winds of 30 to 45 mph, said meteorologist Mase Akapo Jr. with the National Weather Service in Pago Pago

“The public still needs to continue to take precautionary measures due to the strong winds,” Akapo said, adding that the high surf will continue, with waves of 15 to 18 feet expected through Saturday evening.

“We are still faced with high waves,” he said.

Heavy rain fell on parts of Tutuila, the territory’s most populous island, early Saturday morning, and some low-lying areas were flooded.

Rene never made landfall on either Tutuila or the Manu’a island group, but the government planned to conduct an assessment on Saturday to find out if any damage was cause by the storm.

If the cyclone stays on its current track, it could bring heavy rain and thunderstorms, powerful sea surges, pounding waves and widespread coastal flooding to Tonga within 24 to 36 hours, Waqaicelua said.

The storm was expected to strengthen in the next 12 to 24 hours, he said, with possible winds gusts of up to 175 mph.

In American Samoa, several Manu’a residents reached earlier by phone by The Associated Press said the winds had been extremely strong but they have not heard of any reports of injuries or major damage.

Emergency officials in the capital of Pago Pago said there were reports that high winds had downed some trees and electrical lines. The officials also said there was one death indirectly caused by Rene — a 50-year-old man died Friday morning after falling from a two-story building while boarding it up to protect it from the storm.

Territorial Gov. Togiola Tulafono called for calm, urging residents to “be aware and be safe.”

Referring to the tsunami that killed more than 200 people in the Samoan islands and Tonga in September, Tulafono said “as we recover from the events of last September 29th, it is a good feeling that we have placed high priority to help ourselves by preparing and spreading the emergency awareness message.”

Associated Press Writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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