15 Feb 2010

Rene now a category 3 storm but still a severe threat

4:36 pm on 15 February 2010

There has been a slight weakening in the intensity of Cyclone Rene as it approaches the main island of Tonga, Tongatapu.

Rene is now a category three storm on the five point scale but the Fiji Meteorology Office is still forecasting winds gusting up to 125 knots or about 230 kilometres an hour.

Winds of this force are predicted to hit the Ha'apai, Nomuka and Tongatapu groups, and Eua island this afternoon and later tonight.

Forecasters say these islands can expect heavy rain, phenomenal seas and damaging heavy swells from Cyclone Rene as it moves southwest.

The Office says flooding is likely.

Rene is expected to lie 50 kilometres north of Tongatapu by seven this evening New Zealand time.

Radio Tonga reports Male'u Takai, of the National Disaster Management Committee saying that Rene would be the most destructive cyclone in 50 years.

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The head of Tonga's police force has commended people for the level of preparedness.

Commander Chris Kelley says people in the capital are now gearing up for the full impact of the storm by buying emergency supplies and being ready for electricity outages.

Tongatapu is already experiencing gale force winds and rain but he says that will worsen tonight.

"We've just got to wait this one out and see how strong it is when it arrives here in the Tongatapu area. What I can say is that Tongans are very resilient people and they are used to dealing with cyclones so they deal with it quite well actually."

Commander Chris Kelley

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Male'u Takai of the National Disaster Management Committee says early reports about damage in the Vava'u group indicate rooves have been torn from buildings, power lines are down, low lying areas have suffered some flooding and food crops have been badly damaged.

Well the cyclone has just passed Vava'u in the northern group and we've received verbal reports some damage was sustained. Some damage to homes, the agricultural sector is the worst affected. Some 20 houses have had their roofs ripped off.

Tonga's National disaster office deputy director, Male'u Takai.