Cyclone Ami hits Tonga, Fiji surveys damage
NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Cyclone Ami roared over the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga on Wednesday, a day after it smashed into neighbouring Fiji, flooding towns and possibly killing two children.
Winds gusting up to 63 knots (117 kph) struck Tonga early in the morning as the eye of the storm passed to the south of the sprawling island group. Two ships collided in the high seas whipped up by Ami.
The cyclone had eased from the 185 kph (115 mph) winds that battered Fiji and, by daybreak on Wednesday, Fiji's weather service said Ami had moved well south of Tonga and was heading out into open water.
Tonga, dubbed the friendly islands by British explorer Captain James Cook, is home to 100,000 people spread over 170 coral islands about 2,000 km (1,250 miles) north of New Zealand.
The cyclone was the second to hit the South Pacific in as many weeks. Thousands of people in a remote part of the Solomon Islands chain, northwest of Fiji, survived powerful Cyclone Zoe, which hammered the area with 300 kph (190 mph) winds.
There were no reports of damage from the many tourism resorts dotted around Labasa, the main town on Fiji's second-largest island of Vanua Levu. Labasa was flooded to a depth of around four feet (1.2 metres) but the waters later subsided. A quarter of the former British colony's 800,000 people live on the northern island.
The cyclone whipped up mountainous seas, cut communications, razed homes and possibly killed two children who took shelter in a church that collapsed. Seven men on a fishing boat reported missing in the storm were found safe.
Ami then roared through the Lau group of mainly low-lying islands, where huge waves sent villagers scurrying for cover in hillside caves, before it headed southeast over Tonga.
A New Zealand air force Orion plane carrying Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and aid workers from Australia and New Zealand left the Fijian capital, Suva, at dawn to survey the damage.
In Tonga, Ami cut telephone lines, stripped trees and caused extensive damage to banana and coconut plantations but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
However the grounding of the government-owned Olovaha ferry may cut a key link in the sprawling island chain's transport network for some time.
The 400-tonne ferry, which carries people, cars and freight between Tonga's main centres, was stranded upright 100 metres (328 ft) off Popua Beach, eyewitnesses said. Damage reports said it had been holed and its engine room flooded.
Eyewitnesses said the 45-metre (150-ft) long Olovaha dragged its anchor before slamming into the Lotohangana, a 300-tonne, 37-metre (120-ft) long privately owned cargo vessel which broke its moorings in the heavy seas and drifted onto the reef. The impact knocked the Lotohangana on its side. (With additional reporting by Malakai Veisamasama in Fiji)