Devastation from cyclone threatens future of Niue, the world's smallest nation

A state of emergency was declared in the tiny South Pacific nation of Niue yesterday after a powerful cyclone smashed into the island, killing at least one person and virtually flattening the capital, Alofi.

Cyclone Heta, described by islanders as the "worst in living memory", unleashed its full force on Tuesday, packing winds of up to 187mph. It caused widespread damage, lifting roofs off houses and destroying buildings including Niue's hospital. The country's Premier, Young Vivian, who was visiting New Zealand, said: "I'm absolutely worried for my little country."

A woman was killed and her baby was among several people seriously injured when a roof collapsed at the height of the category-five cyclone, the most severe type. Roads were closed, telephone and power lines were down and, with Niue's only satellite dish damaged, the Polynesian island was cut off from the rest of the world.

Niue, which lies 1,375 miles north-east of Auckland, is the world's smallest self-governing state. The 100-square-mile coral atoll is home to 1,700 people, and the country - lacking in natural resources - is heavily reliant on New Zealand aid. New Zealand was preparing to dispatch a relief flight today carrying water, shelter and medical supplies. Mr Vivian will travel home on the plane, together with two aid officials.

But while short-term help was on its way, there were grave fears about Niue's ability to rebuild. Even before the cyclone struck, questions were being raised about the nation's viability following the severe population decline. Some 20,000 Niueans live in New Zealand, which administered the island until 1974 and offered citizenship to locals when it gained independence.

The cyclone destroyed not only staple crops such as bananas, breadfruit and taro (a starchy root vegetable), but also caused extensive damage to vanilla and limes, planted more recently.

Mr Vivian said: "Any cyclone with that strength is going to wipe out whatever efforts we have made in the past years in terms of agricultural products. This will really knock us back in terms of building the country economically. It will knock us right back to square one." He also feared the cyclone would accelerate depopulation, with people choosing to emigrate rather than rebuild. "It has proven so in the past, because if they [Niueans] go through too many of these cyclones, they just give up and leave," he said.

Captain Cook arrived in Niue to a hostile reception in 1774 and departed in haste, calling it Savage Island. Niue - which is pronounced "nu-ay" and translates as "behold the coconut" - became a British protectorate in 1900 but soon afterwards was given to New Zealand. The 14 villages are now full of abandoned houses being reclaimed by the jungle, and there is a chronic skills shortage.

Niueans fear that their 1,000-year-old language and culture will die out unless the country's future is secured. Some expatriates say Niue's only hope of survival lies in reuniting with New Zealand. But islanders are fiercely protective of their independence, and Mr Vivian has implored emigrants to return home.

A Niuean official told expatriates recently: "The warm weather, hospitality, warmth of the people... and the awesome lifestyle will more than make up for the salary."

Niueans extol the island's heavenly beaches, the almost non-existent crime rate and the plentiful seafood that includes crabs so large that people walk them on leashes. Life is so relaxed that, according to one saying, the dogs chase the cats at walking pace. That idyllic image has been smashed by the cyclone, which veered close to several other small Pacific island nations.

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