Tonga riding out Cyclone Rene; buildings, crops damaged but no deaths, injuries reported

By Pesi Fonua, AP
Monday, February 15, 2010

Tonga riding out Cyclone Rene; no injury reported

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga — Cyclone Rene showed no signs of easing its onslaught on Tonga late Monday, its powerful winds ripping off roofs, tearing down trees and downing power lines in the South Pacific island nation.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or severe damage, but Ha’apai island group, located in the center of the Tongan 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, sparking coastal flooding as roiling seas surged ashore. Tonga’s third island group is called Tongatapu, where its capital is located.

Tonga’s police commander Chris Kelley said no deaths or injuries were yet 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 Tongo’s capital, Nuku’alofa.

Late Monday in Nuku’alofa, Kelley said wind strength was intensifying, bringing heavy rain and surface flooding to many areas, tearing down banana palms and the fruit off mango and breadfruit trees.

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 New Zealand’s National Radio.

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

“We were very lucky here,” he told National Radio. “A few houses have lost their roofs but mainly its … crop damage with most of the banana (palms blown) down and taro leaves burned.”

Apart from damage to palm and fruit trees, most tourist resorts had 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 caused 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 Rene, 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.

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