The fate of several thousand people on three of the Solomon Islands devastated by a powerful cyclone remained a mystery Thursday as relief efforts finally got under way to reach the remote South Pacific islands.
A New Zealand photographer who flew over the island of Tikopia on New Year's Day reported massive destruction from Cyclone Zoe, which hit over the weekend with winds of nearly 200 mph.
"The island is a scene of total devastation," said Geoff Mackley after flying over Tikopia. "Every tree on the island has been blown over or shredded, the island is completely denuded of vegetation, almost every building has been damaged. . ."
The island is does not have an airstrip and the only way to reach it is by boat. All radio communication has been cut off with the islands.
A boat with food, water and medical supplies that was to have sailed from Honiara earlier this week was delayed when the financially ailing government of the Solomon Islands could not afford to pay for it. The New Zealand and Australian governments have since donated funds for the relief ship and it was scheduled to set sail Thursday night. It will take days for the ship to reach the stricken islands, which have a population believed to be around 3,000.
The government of Germany also announced it would offer assistance but did not specify what form it would take.
Action by Churches Together (ACT), a global coalition of faith-based disaster response groups, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) said they were working together to determine how they might help in the relief efforts. The islands are in a region where the church of Melanesia is strong, according to WCC. The Solomon Islands Christian Association based in Honiara is an ACT member.
The isolated islands of Tikopia and Anuta, as well as Fataka, are located some 600 miles southeast of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Island chain. Tikopia, the largest of the three islands, and Anuta were believed to be the hardest hit.
The fate of the residents on the island remained a major question mark more than four days after the cyclone hit.
Mackley said he saw some people on the beach when he flew over the island, some of whom signaled the aircraft with sheets of white plastic.
"I will not speculate on the likely casualties or fatalities," he said. "If it is not large it will be a miracle."
But Alan March, assistant director of the Australian aid agency AusAID, said photos taken by an Australian C-130 Hercules that flew over the islands Wednesday to survey the damage showed some residents "going about their business including fishing in the lagoon."
"But there is no evidence . . . of injuries or casualties," he said. "On Anuta in particular, a number of houses, somewhere between 20 and 25, had been rebuilt."
Anthropologist Judith MacDonald, who previously lived on Tikopia and who viewed aerial photos from the C-130 flight, said at least 15 villages had been washed away.
"The damage is tremendously severe and chances of (the villagers) surviving will be pretty bad," she said.
Martin Karani of the Solomons' National Disaster Management Office said photographs showed the villages of Ravenga and Namo on Tikopia had been virtually washed away.
"All that is left is the bare trunk of coconut trees with the sand halfway up the trees," he said. "There's not even any sign of the houses left."
Many of the houses on the islands are built from leaves and branches.
"We cannot say at this stage what happened to the 700 people living in both villages," Karani said. "We just hope that they were able to get out in good time.
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