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 Saturday, 4 January, 2003, 11:37 GMT
Solomons survivors tell their story
Local Solomon islanders greeting the helicopter
The helicopter landed on the beach
The first contact has been made with people living on a remote island battered by a South Pacific cyclone which struck the Solomons group last weekend.

A New Zealand cameraman who arrived on Tikopia island by helicopter on Friday said all the island's inhabitants appear to have survived.

Every single person was alive and there they were, standing in front of me

Geoff Mackley
"The whole way there I thought I would see hundreds of dead and festering bodies, but instead we were just overwhelmed with people running toward the plane," cameraman Geoff Mackley told The Australian newspaper.

Mr Mackley's report is yet to be independently confirmed, but a boat carrying relief supplies is expected to arrive at Tikopia at first light on Sunday.

There had been fears that many of the island's population - estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 - had perished when Cyclone Zoe hit the South Pacific last Sunday.

A birdseye view of the once lush island of Anuta
There has been no contact with Anuta
Aerial photographs showed many homes and crops had been destroyed, both on Tikopia and the nearby island of Anuta.

No information has been received from Anuta since the cyclone knocked out its radio communications.

Cyclone Zoe was one of the most powerful ever to hit the region, producing winds of up to 360 kph (225 mph).

Huge destruction

Mr Mackley was the first to raise fears of disaster when he flew over Tikopia on 1 January, saying it would be a "miracle" if a huge number of deaths had been avoided.

But when he landed on the remote island on Friday, he said he was greeted by people rushing towards him with tales of survival.

"Every single person was alive and there they were, standing in front of me," he said.

The islanders had apparently sheltered in mountain caves, following a centuries-old practice used by their ancestors during cyclones.

A village on Tikopia photographed by the Royal Australian Air Force
Aerial photographs suggested the death toll would be high
But while the death toll appears to be less than feared, the devastation caused by the cyclone is immense, Mr Mackley said.

"It looks like Hiroshima," he told The Australian. "Whole villages have been inundated by the sea."

The villagers told Mr Mackley how their homes and crops had been completely destroyed by waves of up to 10 metres high, and said they would need food aid for another three years.

Supplies of fresh water have also been contaminated by salt water and are only available at low tide, Mr Mackley said.

Criticism over delays

The true extent of the damage will be assessed when the first rescue boat finally reaches Tikopia and Anuta later on Saturday.

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

Both governments have said the sheer isolation of the two islands has hampered rescue efforts.

"How can you decide to parachute supplies in if you don't have an assessment of what's required," an Australian government official said on Friday.

The two islands are part of the impoverished Solomon Islands, an archipelago 2,250 km (1,400 miles) northeast of Sydney, Australia.


Map showing Solomon Islands, including Tikopia and Anuta

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"It was feared that hundreds may have died"
  Loti Yates, Disaster Management Centre, Honiara
"They have been washed away by high seas"
  Flight Lieutenant Jamie Riddell
"There were people moving around in the villages we could see"

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

03 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
02 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
02 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
01 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
18 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
21 Dec 02 | Country profiles
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