One dead as cyclone hits Tonga

One person is thought to have died after a tropical cyclone tore through northern Tonga last night, media reports say.

The main island of LIfuka is said to have been devastated by Cyclone Ian, killing at least one person, news website Matangi Tonga reported.

It quoted Sione Taumoefolau, head of the Tonga Red Cross, as saying he believed there had been one death on the island.

Tongan authorities declared a state of emergency for the island groups of Vava'u and Ha'apai yesterday as Cyclone Ian began to lash the island groups with gales and heavy rain.

Cyclone Ian side-stepped Tonga's heavily populated main island of Tongatapu, which escaped unscathed during the night as the storm moved south west, Matangi Tonga reported.

The Tongan meteorological service has reclassed Cyclone Ian to a category five after briefly downgrading it to a category four yesterday.

It was tracking 210 kilometres east-southeast of the capital Nuku'alofa at 4am local time, with estimated wind speeds of 110 knots near its centre and momentary gusts of up to 155 knots.

At that time it was moving in a south-southeast direction, away from Tonga, at a speed of 11 knots, the Tonga Meteorological Group said.

It was not expected to directly hit the Tongatapu and `Eua islands.

New Zealand aid is already helping with the immediate response effort following Cyclone Ian, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said.

Financial aid, as well as the use of military aircraft to help assess the damage caused, has been offered to the Tongan government.

"An RNZAF P3 Orion arrived in Tonga this morning to assist with aerial assessments following Tropical Cyclone Ian. We will also make $50,000 immediately available to respond to specific requests for assistance,'' Mr McCully said.

"Our thoughts are with the people of Tonga as they begin to come to terms with the damaged caused by this cyclone.''

Early reports suggest damage to buildings in parts of Ha'apai, limited communications and power outages, the minister said.

"More details will become available as Tongan authorities make assessments today.''

Further support will be considered as the full extent of the damage becomes clear and the government of Tonga determines its priority response areas, Mr McCully said.

New Zealanders in Tonga are advised to follow the advice of local authorities, including any evacuation orders, seek suitable shelter, monitor local media for updates, and keep friends and family in New Zealand informed of their well-being.

If they require consular advice they should contact the New Zealand High Commission in Nuku' alofa.

- Patrice Dougan of APNZ



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