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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 15, 2010

Storm worries Tongans

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer

Worried Tongan families gathered for Sunday services at the First United Methodist Church in Honolulu yesterday, fearing the damage caused back home by Tropical Cyclone Rene.

Some tried successfully — others not — to reach family and friends to make sure they were safe. Others could only wait to hear damage reports after the storm passed.

"We don't know yet what they're gonna have," said the Rev. Eddie Kelemeni. "We haven't heard anything yet."

What they did hear was that there were no reports of injuries so far from Tropical Cyclone Rene. But trees and vegetation were flattened, said Pauli Takai of Honolulu, who said he talked to his family in the capital city of Nuku'alofa.

Busby Kautoke, chief secretary to the Tongan Cabinet, said in a statement shared by Annie Kaneshiro, honorary consular agent in Honolulu, that the storm will be closest to Vava'u early this morning and nearest Ha'apai at 1 p.m. today.

The tropical cyclone is moving along the same track as Tropical Cyclone Isaac that struck Tonga in 1982, Kautoke said.

"Judging by the speed of this Tropical Cyclone Rene, there is a cause for high precautions against sea surges over low-lying areas of Ha'apai, Nuku'alofa and Hihifo," Kautoke said in the statement.


The Tonga Disaster Management Committee met over the weekend to decide on the best emergency plan to activate. Tonga's defense services and Tongan police officials were also working on emergency measures, the statement said.

Last night, the storm packed winds of 90 mph with gusts of up to 130 mph and was expected to intensify overnight. The storm skirted American Sämoa and Sämoa on Saturday, without causing much damage. But it was moving southwest on a track that would take it across central and southern Tonga.

"With this southward movement it's heading directly toward Tonga," Alipate Waqaicelua, a Nadi Tropical Forecaster, told The Associated Press. "If the center goes right on (this track), then within 24 to 36 hours it will be very close to Tonga."

In churches across Hawai'i yesterday, Tongans prayed for those back home.

Ema Arelliano, at the First Tongan Church in Waimänalo, said church members tried repeatedly to reach their families and got a busy signal instead.

"We are worried about our families," Arelliano said. "We are praying for them. That's all we can do at this point. Just pray and wait to hear more."


Kelemeni said that no decisions have yet been made among Tongan church officials in Hawai'i on how best to help their families and friends.

"We prayed for them today," Kelemeni said. "We will probably hear more later. We don't know what we'll do as a church. It depends on the damage."

In the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, there was little evidence of preparations for the cyclone. Few buildings were shuttered, but fishing boats were returning to port.

Tonga's meteorological office warned that the cyclone could "increase to very destructive hurricane force."

Rene never made landfall on either American Sämoa's main island of Tutuila or the Manu'a island group.

At Sunday church services, residents of the U.S. territory offered prayers and hymns of thanksgiving that American Sämoa escaped the worst of the cyclone.

American Sämoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said a preliminary report indicated minimal damage to homes and government property from the storm, which knocked down trees and caused scattered power outages.

Tulafono confirmed there was one death indirectly caused by Rene — a 50-year-old man, who fell from a two-story apartment building while trying to board up a portion of the building on Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Suzanne Roig at sroig@honoluluadvertiser.com.