Fears for thousands on islands hit by massive cyclone

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The Independent Online

The fate of more than 3,000 people living on two far-flung South Pacific islands hit by a massive cyclone on Sunday remained unclear as a Royal Australian Air Force plane prepared to fly over the area today.

The fate of more than 3,000 people living on two far-flung South Pacific islands hit by a massive cyclone on Sunday remained unclear as a Royal Australian Air Force plane prepared to fly over the area today.

Australian and New Zealand tourists are believed to be among those stranded on the tiny volcanic outcrops of Tikopia and Anuta – part of the Solomon Islands chain, which received the full force of Cyclone Zoe at the weekend.

The extent of the damage wreaked by Zoe is unknown, but meteorologists said the storm was strong enough to level buildings.

The two islands, located in one of the most remote spots on the planet, are linked to the outside world only by radio. There has been no communication with them since they were buffeted early on Sunday by Zoe, which is believed to have flattened radio antennae. The cyclone is category five, the highest level of destructiveness in the Southern Hemisphere's storm-classification system.

Tikopia and Anuta, which lie more than 600 miles from the Solomons capital, Honiara, have no airstrips and a police patrol boat carrying relief supplies is not expected to reach them for several days. The boat, Lata, could not be dispatched by the cash-strapped Solomons government until Australia agreed to pay for fuel for the journey.

The cyclone developed last Thursday close to the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Tuvalu, gathering strength as it veered west towards the Solomons. It missed the main island but battered outlying Tikopia and Anuta, in Temotu Province, with winds gusting up to 225mph. The two islands are popular holiday destinations.

The islanders, many of whom live in basic dwellings of leaves and branches, had advance warning Zoe was heading their way. The front of the cyclone passed near Tikopia, the most populated of the two islands. Loti Yates, head of the Disaster Management Office in Honiara, said authorities feared the islands had been devastated.

The Solomons, bankrupt and in a state of near anarchy after years of civil war, is reliant on foreign aid. Australia, which provides £13m annually in aid, said yesterday it would offer emergency communications and medical assistance of up to £17,500 if required.

The two islands, part of the Santa Cruz group, are in an area where cyclones are common. Milton Tozaka, the Solomons high commissioner in Australia, said yesterday that people were prepared for such events. "They have shelters," he said. "They have their root crops, like taro, in storage. It is normal procedure for cyclones, and any visitors to the islands would be afforded that shelter as well."

Provincial officials said the patrol boat's departure had been delayed by strong winds and stormy conditions. It was expected to set sail today for the provincial capital before proceeding to the two islands.

The Australian military surveillance plane was scheduled to fly over the area this morning in response to a request by the Solomons government. The plane will make a visual check to establish the extent of the damage.

Australian weather forecasters said last night that the storm was weakening and would probably miss Vanuatu and Fiji, which were both braced to be hit. Hawaii's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre predicted that Zoe would move south towards New Zealand later this week.

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