12 Jan 2014

Cyclone destroys homes and churches in Tonga

8:58 am on 12 January 2014

A powerful cyclone has destroyed homes and ripped roofs from churches in Tonga but there have been no reports of any reports of injuries.

A NASA image shows Tropical Cyclone Ian when it was skirting Fiji.

A NASA image shows Tropical Cyclone Ian when it was skirting Fiji. Photo: AFP / NASA / HANDOUT

A state of emergency was declared for two of Tonga's three island groups, Vava'u and Ha'apai, on Saturday morning as category-five storm Cyclone Ian brought heavy rain and strong winds forecast to gust at up to 287km per hour.

The storm was later downgraded from the top of the scale of destructive cyclones to category four, with gusts of up to 250km per hour, but then upgraded to category five again.

AAP reports the main island of Tongatapu in the south appears to have avoided the worst of the storm.

Tonga's Director of Emergencies Leveni Aho said damage to homes, churches and other public buildings was reported on Lifuka island in the central Ha'apai group and Hunga island in the Vava'u group to the north.

The extent of the damage was still being assessed, but the destruction appeared to be less extensive than Tongans had feared from the first category-five storm they had experienced in decades.

"The lucky part ... is that although it is very highly dangerous, the eye was so narrow, the extent of the damage is not what you associate normally with a category-five cyclone," Mr Aho said. He estimated the storm's eye was less than 60 kilometres across.

He said there were no immediate reports of deaths, injuries or missing persons.

While churches had been prepared as standby evacuation centres, Mr Aho said he was not aware of people leaving their homes in large numbers.

Mr Aho advised against travel between islands during the storm and urged residents of outer islands to stay put.

A state of emergency remains in place for the northern islands.

Tonga is an archipelago of 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by more than 100,000 people.

No request for help yet

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade says Tonga has not requested any official assistance as yet.

But the ministry said on Saturday that could change at anytime and it was monitoring the situation.

UNICEF is on stand-by in New Zealand to send supplies and personnel as soon as it's safe to do so.

Chief executive Dennis McKinlay said UNICEF has pre-positioned supplies in Suva, Fiji, including water purification equipment and make-shift shelters.