Powerful winds from Cyclone Rene damage buildings, phone links in Tonga

By Pesi Fonua, AP
Monday, February 15, 2010

Cyclone Rene batters Tonga, cutting phone links

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga — Cyclone Rene battered Tonga with powerful winds Monday, cutting phone links, ripping off roofs and downing power lines in the South Pacific island nation.

All telephone links with the outside world went down as the storm pounded the capital, Nuku’alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu in the south of the kingdom.

Prior to losing contact, there were no reports of casualties or severe damage, but the Ha’apai island group, located in the center of the archipelago, faced “very destructive hurricane force winds” with gusts of 143 miles (228 kilometers) an hour, the Meteorological Office said. Heavy rain, thunderstorms, sea swells and flooding were expected.

In the northern Vava’u islands group, contact was lost early Monday just after Rene hit. Coastal areas flooded as roiling seas surged ashore.

Tonga’s police commander, Chris Kelley, said no deaths or injuries had been reported in Vava’u, and the biggest impact so far was on crops.

“We are aware of some damage to buildings but nothing serious at this stage,” he told The Associated Press from Nuku’alofa.

Kelley said heavy rains flooded many areas, while powerful winds tore down banana palms and fruit from mango and breadfruit trees.

The strong winds were expected to continue for another 12 to 18 hours, forecaster Robin Natuneli from the Nadi Tropical Cyclone Center in Fiji told New Zealand’s National Radio.

National Disaster Management Office deputy director Mali’u Takai said it had become too dangerous to go outside.

“It’s so noisy, it’s like … a locomotive is running around. It’s getting bad now, hopefully this is the worst part of it,” he told National Radio.

Hank Gros, who runs a tourism business in Neiafu, the main town in the Vava’u group, said winds there had decreased Monday afternoon, but residents faced up to six days without electricity because all lines were down. He said damage overall was less than expected.

“We were very lucky here,” he told National Radio. “A few houses have lost their roofs but mainly it’s … crop damage with most of the banana (palms) down.”

Most tourist resorts reported little damage, he said.

In low-lying Ha’apai, people were moved to higher ground and into emergency centers for safety, Kelley said, with the storm cutting power and communications, and damaging houses, trees and village gardens.

The cyclone also cut power supplies in Nuku’alofa, and communications from the capital to other islands remained severed late Monday.

Tonga, the South Pacific’s last kingdom, has a population of 101,000.

The storm missed both American Samoa, a U.S. territory, and the neighboring island nation of Samoa on Saturday, though it triggered heavy rains, high winds and large sea swells. Both areas were spared more devastation after being battered by a tsunami that killed 226 people last year.

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said a preliminary report indicated minimal damage to homes and government property from the storm, which indirectly caused one death — a 50-year-old man who fell from a two-story apartment building while trying to board it up Friday.

will not be displayed