Solomon Islands

Tipokia shredded by Zoe, victims still beyond reach

News and Press Release
Originally published
From Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai'i

TIKOPIA, Solomon Islands (News Interactive/AAP, Jan. 2) - A remote Pacific island was devastated by Cyclone Zoe and grave fears were held for many of its 2,000 residents, an eyewitness said today.

Independent New Zealand photographer Geoff Mackley, who was on the first plane to fly over the tiny island of Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, said it would have faced the full force of the cyclone which hit last Saturday.

"Every tree on the island has been blown over or shredded, the island is completely denuded of vegetation, almost every building has been damaged, a few remain intact, while others have been shredded, and the sea has come through some villages, burying them," Mr Mackley said in a statement posted on his website.

"I will not speculate on the likely casualties or fatalities, if it is not large it will be a miracle.

"This sort of destruction is normally seen only after a strong tornado or volcanic eruption, a number of people, maybe 20 came down to the beach to watch us fly over, some signaled us with sheets of white plastic, others just sat there."

Mr Mackley said the plane was unable to land as there was no airstrip on the tiny island situated 1,000 km west of the Solomon's capital of Honiara.

He said Tikopia appeared to have been hit when Cyclone Zoe was at its peak, with winds of between 300 and 350 kilometers per hour.

Contact with the island's 2,000 residents was lost 24 hours before the cyclone hit. They have been cut off from the outside world for almost five days as earlier attempts by the Solomon Island government to send a surveillance boat were halted by bad weather.

After hearing of the scale of the devastation, the Solomon's government cancelled a plan to send a patrol boat to Tikopia and said a larger vessel would be prepared to take out relief supplies.

Another populated island, Anuta, was also believed to be badly hit in the storm.

An Australian Hercules was due to fly over the islands this afternoon with RAAF photographers, defense personnel and a number of media representatives.

Mr Mackley, who chartered the single engine aircraft, specializes in filming storms around the world.

"The island is a scene of total devastation ... in my experience with severe weather the maximum winds on the island would have been between 300 and 350 kph," he said.

The issue of sending help to the islands has been clouded by the fact that a four-year long civil war has left the central government bankrupt.

AusAID spokesman Alan March said a vessel, for which Australia has provided the fuel, also was preparing to head to the island after the Hercules assessed the damage.

He said the boat journey would take between two and three days.

"It is a very remote island group and the Solomon Island government is reacting as best it can to these challenges," Mr March said.

"The response to any of these events is dependent on the facilities and the decision of the island government concerned."

Mr March said the fate of more than 4,000 people on the two islands was unknown.

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the federal government provided $36 million a year to the strife-ridden Solomons, and now would also provide emergency communications and medical assistance.

Oxfam Community Aid Abroad's Melbourne office was on standby to begin assembling emergency aid once a damage assessment has been made.

The islands are expected to need supplies of water, shelter, food and clothing.

Cyclone Zoe was classified as rating five, topping the Southern Hemisphere classification for storm strength.

Tikopia, with a land mass of only 16 square kilometres, has a long history of dealing with cyclones -- in 1992 Cyclone Tia wiped out most of its housing and food crops, while a storm in 1956 killed 200 people.

As a result, the inhabitants live in low lying dwellings and keep stocks of food buried to sustain them when cyclones hit.