NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga – Authorities were searching remote islands for cyclone victims today after the most powerful storm to hit Tonga in decades cut a swath of destruction through this South Pacific archipelago, leaving at least one person dead and several injured.
Relief efforts following Saturday’s storm were concentrating on the Ha’apai islands – one of Tonga’s three island groups between the main island of Tongatapu in the south and the Vava’u islands to the north, Director of Emergencies Leveni Aho said.
Cyclone Ian hit Tonga with gusts up to 178 miles per hour. The storm was later downgraded from the top of five-scale destructive cyclones to category four. The cyclone was tracking southeast away from Tonga today.
Tonga is an archipelago of 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by more than 100,000 people.
Aho said authorities have been unable to make telephone contact with 23 islands, which account for most of the inhabited islands in the Ha’apai group.
The Ha’apai islands are home to 8,000 people, most of whom live on the devastated islands of Lifuka, where one person died, and Foa.
A New Zealand air force P-3 Orion plane made a surveillance flight over the disaster area today, taking pictures showing the extend of the damage.
Aho said up to 70 percent of the homes and buildings in some areas had been flattened.