FATE OF SOLOMONS CYCLONE VICTIMS STILL UNKNOWN

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Radio Australia, Jan. 1) – Solomon Islands authorities say will be several days before the world knows the fate of at least 1,300 people living on two remote islands in the Solomon group that were slammed by a cyclone of historic proportions.

Weather experts say South Pacific cyclones don't come much bigger than Zoe, which had 300 kilometer an hour winds spinning around its eye when it hit the eastern tip of Solomon Islands last Friday and stayed there most of Saturday.

Zoe formed over an unusually warm pool of water between Fiji and the equator on Christmas Eve.

It intensified rapidly on Boxing Day as it spun towards Solomon Islands.

And by the time it hit the small islands of Tikopia and Anuta in the outer Solomon Islands, it was one of the strongest cyclones ever seen in the South Pacific.

There's been no radio contact, and the country's Disaster Management Office is worried about the people living there. Plans to dispatch a patrol boat Monday have been put on hold, and officials were hoping the boat might leave the capital, Honiara, late on New Year's Eve.

But the islands are three days away from Honiara and it could be a week before full details are available.

"Right now, probably those two islands have probably been flattened," says Loti Yates from the Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office, which is co-coordinating the rescue effort with the Solomon Islands Government, the Red Cross, and other aid agencies.

"Most buildings there would be constructed from timber, and a roof of coconut palms. They will just totally flatten that place, and these houses would be blown down by winds of 20-to-30 knots."

His main concern is what might have happened to the islanders.

"That is the main concern that we have," he says. "We don't really know. Unless they have their own emergency plans to evacuate people into safe areas, higher ground, move inland, because they would be experiencing high seas, very rough coastal flooding, etc."

"They do have higher grounds there. Unlike the atoll islands, those islands have small heels to which people could actually just run and take shelter."

Yates admits he fears there may be a loss of life.

"I cannot rule that out. But at this stage I don't want to make any assumptions. That is a fear that we have."

Medical teams, agricultural officials and disaster assessment teams will be on the patrol boat, along with food supplies, temporary shelter and water containers.

Australia is providing an initial A$20,000 in emergency assistance.

"At this stage we've had an approach from the Royal Solomon Islands police to have the responsibility for the delivery of emergency maritime assistance in Solomon Islands," according to Bob Davis, Australian High Commissioner in Solomon Islands.

"They approached us two days ago to provide assistance by fuelling a patrol boat to go down into the region to do an assessment of the damage. The fuel cost is approximately A$20,000 for that component of the assistance."

Davis points out, however, the two small islands have successfully weathered earlier storms.

"The people in that region, although we have little information at the moment on the extent of the damage, certainly do have a history of preparing for and weathering very severe storms."

"Some information that we've received suggests that they did have fairly significant warning of the likely impact of cyclone Zoe, and were able to take precautionary measures in the area."

January 1, 2002

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

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