Northern Cook Islands pounded by cyclone

Residents of the northern Cook Islands were evacuated from their homes on Sunday as the tiny South Pacific nation was lashed by a “near direct hit” from the fourth cyclone in the region this month, disaster authorities said.

Communications with the island of Pukapuka in the northern Cook Islands were lost on Sunday morning after reports that 600 residents had been evacuated to the local school, the Australian-Pacific Centre for Emergency and Disaster Information (Apcedi) said.

Chief Inspector John Tini in the Cooks Emergency Centre, based on the main island of Rarotonga, said a New Zealand Air Force place was due to land in Rarotonga on Sunday and could be used to assess damage, the centre said.

No casualties had been reported before communications were lost on Sunday, the centre said.

Pukapuka and the island of Nassau are the westernmost islands of the northern group of the Cook Islands. On Nassau, all 70 residents were evacuated to two main churches that serve as cyclone shelters.

“Given the near direct hit of the storm’s centre on Pukapuka and Nassau, authorities should expect widespread moderate to severe property damage on both islands,” the centre said.

Tini said amateur radio contact was established with Nassau on Sunday afternoon and residents said the winds had died down to 28kph. It was unclear whether this was due to the eye of the storm passing.

Heavy rain and hurricane-force winds had inflicted severe damage to house roofs on Nassau, the residents said.

By early afternoon, Percy was about 40km south-southeast of Pukapuka and about 48km south-west of Nassau.
Winds near the centre of the cyclone were estimated at 165kph with gusts up to 230kph, although these were weakening, the Fiji Meteorological Service said.

Cyclone Percy is expected to turn to the south, putting the southern Cook Islands in its path. The Fiji Meteorological Service issued a cyclone alert for the southern islands.

“The timing of the turn is now critical for the Rakahanga and Manihiki islands to the east of Pukapuka,” Apcedi said. Cyclone Martin caused 19 deaths on Manihiki in 1997.

Meanwhile, to the west, the 1 400 residents of Tokelau were cleaning up after being hit by the cyclone late on Friday and early on Saturday.

New Zealand’s administrator for Tokelau, Neil Walter, said on Radio New Zealand there had been widespread damage to roads, buildings and the power system.

Apcedi reported on Saturday one person had been seriously injured by flying debris, although Walter and New Zealand Aid Minister Marian Hobbs said later there had been no serious injuries.

Hobbs said food, water, power generators and fuel and other supplies will be shipped to Tokelau from Samoa as soon as they can be purchased and loaded. There is no airport on Tokelau’s low-lying atolls.

“Damage is still being assessed but we know that much of Nukunono was under water at one stage, and buildings and crops have been affected,” she said.

Nukunono is one of three atolls that make up Tokelau, a New Zealand territory with about 1 400 residents, which lies 500km north of Samoa.

The cyclone passed to the north-east of Swain’s Island, with a population of up to 20 people, in American Samoa on Saturday. Efforts to contact those on the island have been unsuccessful, Apcedi said.

Percy is the fourth cyclone to batter the region during February, and the Cook Islands was damaged by all three earlier cyclones—Olaf, Nancy and Meena.—AFP

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