One dead, widespread destruction in Tonga cyclone
At least one person was killed when powerful Cyclone Ian ploughed into Tonga's central Ha'apai islands, causing extensive damage and destroying houses, officials said Sunday.
The full extent of the destruction began to emerge when communications were partially restored a day after the South Pacific kingdom's first category five cyclone struck early Saturday morning.
The Tongan government declared a state of emergency when the cyclone first hit, although initial reports then said there had been only minor damage.
Ian was downgraded to a category four cyclone late Saturday morning, but increased in intensity later in the day and was restored to the most severe rating of category five as it hit Ha'apai, knocking out communications.
By Sunday, reports began to emerge of houses destroyed and trees flattened across the island chain, which is home to about 8,000 people and is popular with tourists.
Ha'apai governor Tu'i Ha'angana said he could see from one side of the island to the other and "that's how devastated it is".
The head of the Tonga Red Cross, Sione Taumoefolau, said he had been informed of one death in Ha'apai but did not have further details as communication remained sketchy.
He said staff in the region told him by satellite phone the main island of Lifuka was devastated.
Residents in Lifuka were reported to have huddled in churches for shelter as houses were destroyed in the furious cyclone.
However, the limited communications meant the full extent of the damage and the numbers left homeless were not immediately clear.
The Red Cross established a policy last year of maintaining containers of relief supplies on most islands, and Taumoefolau said they were able to provide immediate assistance.
Tupou Ahomee Faupula, from Tonga's cell phone provider Digicel, said his field officer in Ha'apai, Uaisele Fonokalafi, reported widespread devastation.
"He told us that this was the worst ever damage from a cyclone. Most houses are flattened, roofs are off, trees and power lines are down."
The Tonga navy was sending two patrol boats to Ha'apai, and the Matangi Tonga news website reported the government was considering a request for overseas aid.
New Zealand offered immediate assistance of NZ$50,000 ($41,500) and an Air Force Orion was sent Sunday to begin an immediate aerial surveillance of the devastated areas.
The flight was not expected to return to the capital Nuku'alofa until late at night.
"Our thoughts are with the people of Tonga as they begin to come to terms with the damage caused by this cyclone," said Foreign Minister Murray McCully.
"Further support will be considered as the full extent of the damage becomes clear and the government of Tonga determines its priority response areas."
The Fua'amotu Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre downgraded Ian again to category four Sunday, with wind gusts of up to 140 knots (161 miles per hour, 259 kilometres per hour).
The storm was expected to continue weakening as it moved south over open waters, away from the island nation, according to meteorologists.
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