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NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga - Tropical Cyclone Rene pounded Tonga with powerful winds overnight, causing major damage to buildings in the capital city, tearing off roofs, downing trees and cutting power and phone lines in the South Pacific island nation.
When phone service was restored early today, police said they had no immediate reports of death or injury during the storm that has hammered the three main island groups of the kingdom for more than 24 hours.
"There's a lot of damage. A lot of shops, restaurants and offices in the city have lost their roofs and a lot of houses are also damaged," Inspector Tatiko Kanfusi said from Nuku'alofa on the main island of Tongatapu in the south of the kingdom. "Lots of trees are down across roads, but it's still dark and we'll be starting to assess what's happened after daybreak."
Prior to losing contact the Ha'apai island group, located in the centre of the archipelago, faced "very destructive hurricane force winds" with gusts of 228 kilometres 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 yesterday 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.
National Disaster Management Office deputy director Mali'u Takai said at one point yesterday that 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 yesterday 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 centres 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, but communications from the capital to other islands were being restored early Tuesday after being cut for much of Monday.
Tonga, the South Pacific's last kingdom, has a population of 101,000.
The storm missed both American Samoa, a US territory, and the neighbouring 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.