Cyclone with force 186 mph winds devastates three South Pacific islands

A SEVERE cyclone has smashed into three remote South Pacific islands shredded trees and buildings, but aid officials downplayed fears about the fate of the islands’ 2,000 residents.

Photos taken by freelance photographer and film-maker Geoff Mackley showed walls and roofs ripped off buildings amid shredded and toppled trees on the tiny island of Tikopia, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Zoe's 186 mph winds. Some 2,000 Solomon Islanders live on Tikopia just three miles long and the smaller islands of Fataka and Anuta hit by Sunday's storm, which cut radio links to the outside world.

"Every tree in the island has been blown over or shredded; the island is completely denuded of vegetation, almost every building has been damaged," Mackley wrote on his website (www.geoffmackley.com). "The sea has come through some villages, burying them ... I will not speculate on the likely casualties or fatalities (but) if it is not large it will be a miracle."

Mackley was the first outsider to reach the cyclone-hit islands, which lie 600 miles southeast of the capital, Honiara. He could not land as none of the islands have an airstrip.

But Australian government aid officials who flew over the island on an Australian air force plane yesterday said the devastation and any loss of life did not seem as bad as feared. The AusAid officials said islanders in the region, which is prone to cyclones, build traditional cyclone shelters.

Emergency shelter, food and medical supplies have yet to leave for the remote islands because of an argument with the crew of a Solomons state patrol boat over unpaid wages.

The Solomons government is bankrupt and the national economy relies on foreign aid after years of ethnic militia fighting. AusAid spokesman Alan March said the officials reported seeing damage to housing, crops and gardens but also saw islanders tending gardens and fishing.

"It appears some of the original worst fears have not been realised," March said. "With the caveat that this was viewed from 500 metres (1,650 feet), there is evidence of people going about their normal business and getting on with their lives and no evidence of injuries." He said some islanders waved at the plane as it flew past. "But there was no sign of

requests for help," he said.

March said the Australian crew would present its damage assessment and aerial photos to Solomons Islands authorities to help it decide what supplies to send to the islands. Cyclone Zoe has weakened since it hit the islands and was not expected to cause any further damage as it moved east.

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