Battered Tonga struggles to mop up

By PAUL YANDALL AND AGENCIES

Cyclone Waka tore through Tonga yesterday, sinking yachts and destroying homes and crops, but the island kingdom escaped the loss of life it was feared the hurricane-force winds would bring.

The cyclone was expected to be out of the region early today, leaving Tonga's northern islands, which bore the brunt of the 250 km/h gusts and 6m seas, battered and isolated.

Communication to the island group of Vava'u was cut yesterday as Waka demolished homes and ripped down power and phone lines at the popular tourist destination.

Around 15,000 people live on Vava'u island, most in the main town of Neiafu.

Shane Walker of the Auckland-based Sunsail yacht chartering business, which has yachts in Neiafu, said fellow New Zealander Mark Managh managed to contact him by satellite phone last night.

"He said there isn't a single tree standing up there. It is like the island has been sandblasted, it is that devastating," he said.

"The few houses that haven't been demolished have lost their roofs. There are power lines lying all over the streets. The town is a complete mess."

Mr Walker said power and water supplies on the island had failed and all the crops in the area had been wiped out.

"Mark's a pretty hard character but he's really shaken. He was terrified. They stopped looking at the wind dial after it passed 100 knots [185km/h] and just hung on for their lives."

He said several yachts and boats had been sunk and large ship containers had been tossed into the sea. A restaurant was destroyed when a catamaran was thrown into it.

Many resorts on outlying northern islands were still cut off last night.

Communication is expected to be established by today as conditions ease.

A brief radio message from the northern island of Niuafo'ou, 600km north of the capital, Nuku'alofa, reported damage to buildings, trees and crops, but no injuries.

Inspector Alani Falevai said from Nuku'alofa that many of the small island's population of several hundred people moved to other islands before Waka's arrival.

"Winds were blowing very strong through the afternoon. By evening they had lessened, although very heavy rain fell."

As Waka moved over southern Tonga later yesterday it damaged homes and crops with winds of more than 100 km/h.

MetService senior forecaster Steve Ready said the cyclone centre was about 400km south of Niue and was moving steadily southeast.

"It has loosened its grip on the Pacific Islands of Tonga and Niue now," he said.

"The cyclone has moved out over the open sea of the South Pacific and it's liable to keep moving southeast over the open sea."

Although it would change as it moved over colder sea, Waka would probably remain strong for some time, Mr Ready said.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman, Michelle Slade, said the ministry was monitoring the situation from its High Commission office in Nuku'alofa.

She said the Tonga National Disaster Management Office was expected to meet to assess damage and organise the relief and clean-up effort.

Duty Minister Trevor Mallard said the New Zealand Government had approved sending an Air Force aircraft to look at the damage.

Meanwhile, weather forecasters are watching a system near the Solomon Islands that could develop into "a significant tropical cyclone" within the next 24 hours.

Mr Ready said the depression, lying over the Solomons' easternmost islands, could head towards Vanuatu or Fiji.

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