Tongans pray as tropical cyclone tracks toward island nation, threatening direct hit

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tongans pray as cyclone threatens direct hit

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga — Tongans went to church and prayed Sunday as Tropical Cyclone Rene barreled toward their islands, threatening to intensify and directly hit the South Pacific nation.

After brushing past American Samoa and Samoa on Saturday without doing much damage, the powerful storm was moving southwest on a track that would take it across central and southern Tonga, Nadi Tropical Cyclone Center forecaster Alipate Waqaicelua said.

The storm was centered about 212 miles (340 kilometers) northeast of the Tongan archipelago at midafternoon Sunday, he said.

“With this southward movement … it’s heading directly toward Tonga,” Waqaicelua told The Associated Press. “If the center goes right on (this track), then within 24 to 36 hours it will be very close to Tonga.”

The storm will be accompanied by hurricane-force winds, heavy rain and powerful sea surges, he said.

Rene was packing winds of 90 miles (140 kilometers) an hour with gusts of up to 130 mph (210 kph) and was expected to intensify in the next 12 to 24 hours, Waqaicelua said.

In the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, there was little evidence of preparations for the cyclone. Few buildings were shuttered, but fishing boats were returning to port.

Tonga’s meteorological office warned that the cyclone could “increase to very destructive hurricane force.”

The storm missed both American Samoa, a U.S. territory, and neighboring island nation Samoa on Saturday, causing heavy rains, high winds and heavy sea swells but sparing more devastation to both areas, which were battered last year by a tsunami that killed 226 people.

Rene never made landfall on either American Samoa’s main island of Tutuila or the Manu’a island group. At Sunday church services, residents of the U.S. territory offered prayers and hymns of thanksgiving that American Samoa escaped the worst of the cyclone.

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said a preliminary report indicated minimal damage to homes and government property from the storm which did knock down trees and cause scattered power outages.

Tulafono confirmed there was one death indirectly caused by Rene — a 50-year-old man, who fell from a two-story apartment building while trying to board up a portion of the building on Friday.

He said the government was conducting a damage assessment on the main island and the Manu’a group.

About 300 people sought refuge at emergency shelters Saturday morning, but many of them had returned to their homes by Sunday morning.

Inter Island Airways, which provides domestic service, said there was no damage to the runways at the two domestic airports in Manu’a and fights resumed Sunday morning. Flights were suspended last Thursday.

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