Tonga Devastated By Its Most Powerful Cyclone Ever

Tonga has been devastated by the most powerful cyclone ever to hit this popular tourist destination. The storm toppled trees, destroyed villages and has caused at least one known death.

The cyclone (code-named Ian), damaged or destroyed some 70 percent of buildings in the central Ha'apai group of islands, affecting around 8,000 people. The area was hit by winds in excess of 200 kilometers (125 miles) an hour.

Tongan military commander Satisi Vunipola told reporters: "Seventy percent of houses (on Ha'apai) are damaged or blown away, and the rest of the 30 percent are affected by water."

Ian Wilson, a New Zealand emergency management official, said the main town of Lifuka was in the direct path of the cyclone.

"Whatever was on the island has been damaged, whether it's buildings, crops, roading or infrastructure, it's all been damaged. There is no communication. We did have a satellite phone but that also died. It is serious. The eye of the storm went right across the top of the island."

Ian is the first category five cyclone ever to hit Tonga. Ha'apai governor Tu'i Ha'angana said he could see from one side of the island to the other -- "that's how devastated it is".

The head of the Tonga Red Cross, Sione Taumoefolau, said he knew of one death but he could not give details due to lack of contact with the area.

The Tonga navy has sent two patrol boats to Ha'apai, and it has been reported the government was considering a request for overseas aid.

New Zealand offered immediate assistance of NZ$50,000 ($41,500) and dispatched a plane to Tonga on Sunday to begin an immediate aerial surveillance of the devastated areas. The flight was not expected to return to the capital Nuku'alofa until late at night.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully said: "Our thoughts are with the people of Tonga as they begin to come to terms with the damage caused by this cyclone. Further support will be considered as the full extent of the damage becomes clear and the government of Tonga determines its priority response areas."

Ian's status has now been downgraded to a category four tropical storm by the Fua'amotu Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre

Meteorologists say that he storm should continue to weaken as it travels over open waters, away from Tonga.