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 Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 13:24 GMT
Cyclone sweeps away island homes
Remains of a village on Tikopia
Homes have disappeared into sand and sea
Hundreds of homes on the Pacific island of Tikopia have been swept out to sea or buried by sand, according to disaster management officials.

A much-delayed relief ship has finally set sail with emergency supplies five days after a cyclone smashed into Tikopia and the neighbouring island of Anuta.

A village on Tikopia photographed by the Royal Australian Air Force
An Australian aircrew saw people repairing homes
But rescuers will not reach thousands of residents on the remote part of the Solomon Islands chain before Saturday.

The mission was first held up by a lack of money to buy fuel and pay a boat crew.

Once Australia donated the cash, the Solomon Islands Government decided to wait for a larger vessel capable of carrying more supplies.

The ship will give rescuers their first close look at the damage caused by Cyclone Zoe, one of the most powerful Pacific storms on record. It blasted the islands with winds estimated to have reached 350 kilometres per hour (220 mph).

Chilling sight

At least two villages have been destroyed, a Solomon Islands official said after studying photographs taken by an Australian reconnaissance aircraft.

Whole villages have been buried and I am still not sure how many people are dead

Gabriel Teao
Provincial leader
A correspondent for the AFP news agency who flew over Tikopia said the most chilling sight was not the trees snapped in half by the storm, but what was missing.

He said only a few people came out to signal the plane and where villages used to be there was only pristine white sand.

A New Zealand photographer raised the first fears of disaster when he flew over Tikopia on 1 January. Geoff Mackley said it would be a "miracle" if a huge number of deaths had been avoided.

Neither Tikopia nor Anuta has a landing strip. There has been no radio contact since last Saturday's cyclone.

Gabriel Teao, premier of the Temoto district of the Solomon Islands which was worst hit, told AFP: "Whole villages have been buried and I am still not sure how many people are dead."

Dr Judith MacDonald, a New Zealand anthropologist who used to live on Tikopia, told the BBC that at least 15 villages had been washed away.

They really won't have anything much to eat at all

Dr Judith MacDonald
former island resident
"The damage is tremendously severe and [the villagers'] chances of surviving will be pretty bad," Dr MacDonald told the World Today programme.

She said the islanders had no emergency supplies beyond a few root vegetables laid down for winter months.

"The water and the sand that's been swept inland will have covered up those storage pits and apart from the fruit that's been knocked off trees, they really won't have anything much to eat at all at the moment," she said.

String of delays

It is now estimated that 3,700 people live on the remote Pacific islands which form part of the Solomon Islands.

Both Australia and New Zealand say they are doing what they can to help.

Australia donated around $30,000 to fund the initial mercy mission and deployed an air force plane to view the damage.

The first rescue ship with food, clothing, shelter and medical supplies finally left the Solomons' capital Honiara on Thursday evening.

I don't know how we could respond more quickly

Alexander Downer
Australian Foreign Minister

It was to have set sail on Thursday morning, local time, for the 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) voyage which will take between 36 hours and three days, depending on the weather.

Both Australia and New Zealand are now funding a second ferry set to leave on Friday.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said while a five-day delay to a disaster in an Australian city would be unacceptable, the islands were in a remote part of the world and part of a very poor country.

"I don't know how we could respond more quickly," he said on radio.

Crew on the Australian plane that flew over Tikopia on Wednesday said most metal structures appeared to still be standing, though houses built of trees and leaves had been destroyed.

They only had a few seconds to see each village, but photographs taken indicated that people were beginning to rebuild their homes, officials said.

Map showing Solomon Islands, including Tikopia and Anuta

  The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"The early signs are that the islands may have escaped a disaster"
  Loti Yates, Disaster Management Centre
"We can confirm some villages have been swept out by high seas"
  Flight Lieutenant Jamie Riddell
"There were people moving around in the villages we could see"

 Cyclone Zoe
Is enough being done to help the victims?
See also:

02 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
01 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
18 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
21 Dec 02 | Country profiles
13 Nov 02 | South Asia
07 Aug 01 | Media reports
25 May 01 | South Asia
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