Fiji islands cut off after hammering by powerful cyclone

from Agence France-Presse
Published on 15 Jan 2003
by Matelita Ragogo

SUVA, Jan 15 (AFP) - Much of Fiji's cyclone battered northern and eastern islands were still cut off from the outside world Wednesday, two days after Cyclone Ami pummelled the region with powerful winds.

A full assessment was not likely until Wednesday evening following the return here of a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion carrying Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase on a six-hour flight over the area.

In neighbouring Tonga two ships were driven aground by Ami early Wednesday morning, but without loss of life, witnesses said.

The Fiji silence, following a week of silence in the Solomon Islands where another cyclone hammered the island of Tikopia, has raised questions about the dependence of isolated communities on telephones which have led to the demise of the old style radio links.

The storm died out south of Tonga early Wednesday, but not before it lifted two ships onto the reef just east of the capital Nuku'alofa.

One vessel was the near new German-funded, government-owned inter-island ferry Olovaha which is now upright but completely on top of the reef.

It is alongside the capsized former ferry Lotohaangana which was written off two years ago as a ship, but was moored awaiting conversion into a fishing boat. It appears to be beyond salvage now.

There was only minor damage on Tongatapu island itself and the heavy rain which accompanied Ami broke a drought which had emptied water tanks in the capital.

Meanwhile in Fiji the storm was believed to have destroyed a number of villages, flattened plantations and destroyed electricity and telephone lines on a number of islands including Vanua Levu, Tavenui and the low-lying Lau Islands.

There was still no word either from Druadrua Island, north of Vanua Levu, where two pre-school children are feared dead following the collapse of a church.

Qarase Tuesday night declared the affected areas national disaster areas, opening the way for assistance.

Although it is unusual for a prime minister to fly on New Zealand surveillance flights, Qarase comes from Vanua Balavu in the Lau group, expected to have borne the brunt of the huge ocean surges.

Aid experts from Australia and New Zealand are also on the flight.

The Fiji Military Forces were on standby here Wednesday with 150 soldiers and three naval patrol boats awaiting directions following the return of the Orion.

The lack of news was causing tension in Suva where a talkback run for indigenous Fijians, Domo ni Vanua, head often passionate concerns from people who could not accept that the National Disaster Management Office was unable to communicate with affected areas.

Radio Fiji said its callers were angry at the way in which the office had no backup after Fiji Telecom and Vidofono equipment was destroyed.

Prior to Fiji being linked up by landlines and cell phones the country was dependent on radio operators for its connections. These seldom failed, even in storms, but now no longer exist.

mr/bh/mjf/pch AFP 150245 GMT 01 03

Copyright (c) 2003 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 01/15/2003 00:34:00

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