SOLOMONS RELIEF WORKERS DEFEND DELAY

TIKOPIA, Solomon Islands (BBC, Jan. 5) - Relief workers who reached the remote South Pacific island of Tikopia, a week after a devastating cyclone struck the Solomons archipelago, have defended delays in reaching the stricken region.

The Solomons patrol boat Auki arrived at Tikopia early on Sunday, to begin handing out much-needed food and medical supplies to the estimated 1,300 people living on the island.

Workers said that the delays were due to continuing bad weather and logistical problems over the New Year holiday.

Medical staff on the relief workers team said that all the inhabitants of the island appeared to be alive with some suffering only minor injuries, with the islands main medical clinic surviving intact and some village buildings still standing.

"The medical situation on the island has been surprisingly good," Herman Oberlie, the doctor leading the medical team, said.

A second vessel, chartered jointly by the Australian and New Zealand governments, is also on its way to the region, and is expected to arrive on Monday.

The devastation is reported to be immense, and islanders say Cyclone Zoe, the most powerful ever recorded in the Pacific, whipped up 33-foot waves that leveled entire villages and swept seawater over fields of crops.

Nonetheless, details have been emerging regarding the islanders’ incredible escape from the cyclone's 190 mph winds.

A Tikopian nurse described how most of the island's 1,500 inhabitants sought safety in caves after hearing cyclone warnings on the radio.

"People took off in the dark with whatever they had on as the huge waves came in and the wind started blowing stronger and stronger," the nurse, known only as Monica, told Reuters news agency.

"They left everything behind. It was divine providence. It was a real miracle none of us were killed or seriously injured."

Tikopia and two other islands, Mota Lava and Anuta, were declared a disaster area by the Solomon Islands Government earlier in the week.

But continued bad weather and the destruction of radio facilities made accurate damage assessments difficult.

There has still been no contact with one of the islands, Anuta, although March said the Auki patrol boat would head there later on Sunday to assess the damage and provide emergency relief.

The first contact was made with the Tikopia islanders on Friday, when a New Zealand cameraman arrived by helicopter.

While the people survived the cyclone, their crops and homes did not.

The Auki's voyage, from the Solomons' capital Honiara to Tikopia, was delayed for days because the nation's cash-strapped government could not afford to pay for relief supplies or a special allowance demanded by the ship’s crew.

Australia and New Zealand, the two wealthiest nations in the region, have been criticized for delays in assessing the damage.

But March defended Australia’s actions, saying Canberra had helped fund the relief mission and would continue to do so.

"While Australia acted immediately to make resources available to the Solomon Islands, we are still at the beginning of a lengthy humanitarian operation," he said.

Tikopia and its neighbouring islands are part of the impoverished Solomon Islands, an archipelago 1,400 miles north-east of Sydney, Australia.

January 6, 2003

BBC: www.bbc.co.uk/

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