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Tonga in South Pacific lashed by powerful cyclone

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga — The South Pacific nation of Tonga was lashed by a powerful cyclone, destroying homes and ripping roofs from churches and other public buildings in the populous northern islands. At least one person died.

An aerial survey of the damage was under way on Sunday to assess the destruction and two navy patrol boats were on their way to the disaster area, Tonga’s Director of Emergencies Leveni Aho said.

“It’s pretty bad,” Aho said of the damage from today's cyclone. “By this evening, we’ll have a much better picture of what’s happened.”

A state of emergency remained in effect for two of Tonga’s three island groups, Vava’u and Ha’apai , on Sunday after a category-five storm Cyclone Ian brought heavy rain and strong winds forecast to gust at up to 287 kilometers (178 miles) per hour today.

The storm was downgraded later today from the top of the scale of destructive cyclones to category four, with gusts of up to 250 kph (155 mph). On Sunday, the cyclone was tracking southeast away from Tonga.

Aho said one person died on Lifuka island in the central Ha’apai group, where most of the islands had lost telephone contact. He did not know if the death toll was likely to rise.

The main island of Tongatapu in the south avoided the worst of the storm, with damage limited to some fallen trees, Aho said.

Damage to homes and public buildings in Lifuka and Foa, the main islands in the Ha’apai group, was “quite substantial,” he said.

Authorities were still assessing how many people had been forced to seek shelter by the storm, he said.

Kalolaine Kavaefiafi, spokesman for the child welfare charity Plan International, said up to 70 percent of the homes and buildings in some areas had been flattened.

Tonga is an archipelago of 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by more than 100,000 people.

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