The grim search began yesterday for cyclone survivors after the most powerful storm to hit Tonga in decades devastated the 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, the nation's director of emergencies Leveni Aho said.
Cyclone Ian hit with gusts up to 287 km/h but was later downgraded from the top of five-scale destructive cyclones to category four, with gusts of up to 250km/h. Yesterday it was tracking southeast away from Tonga.
Two navy patrol boats carrying tarpaulins, tents and other emergency supplies left Tongatapu to offer help to victims who were cut off in the Ha'apai islands.
Aho said authorities had been unable to make telephone contact with 23 islands, which account for most of the inhabited area in the Ha'apai group.
"The patrol boats are still out there, going from island to island to scout for information," Aho said.
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.
Aho estimated that hundreds of people on the two islands were taking shelter in church buildings that were being used as evacuation centres.
A New Zealand air force plane made a surveillance flight over the disaster area yesterday, taking pictures showing the extent of the damage that surprised officials.
Aho said up to 70 per cent of the homes and buildings in some areas had been flattened.
"There is much more damage on the ground that we anticipated before," he said. "At this point, there is only one fatality. There are some injured, but that is still manageable with the existing medical facilities there."
He said there were no reports of survivors with life-threatening injuries.