Ferry passengers shelter from storm

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 11:22 10/01/2014

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Tonga's newest ferry is sheltering in a remote lagoon and its 200 passengers, many from New Zealand, are ashore as the crew seek shelter from a powerful cyclone.

Five-day-old Cyclone Ian yesterday intensified and has become a category four hurricane, threatening severe winds and big seas.

Regional weather forecasters predict catastrophic conditions on land.

Tonga's Meteorology Service said this morning Ian was about 170 kilometres south-southwest of the northern island of Niuafo'ou and was beginning to move south toward the main part of the Tongan archipelago.

Matangi Tonga said the inter-island ferry MV 'Otuanga'ofa had taken 200 people, many of them Tongans from New Zealand, to a family reunion on Niuafo'ou.

It was supposed to pick them up yesterday morning but the news site quoted Captain Viliami Vi of the Friendly Island Shipping Agency saying the ferry was now sheltering in the lagoon.

"We are saying we are sailing tomorrow, but we will have to see tomorrow actually what Ian's doing before we decide to leave or whether we are just hanging there," he said.

"What we don't want is to have a meeting [with Ian] in Vava'u."

The 53 metre long 'Otuanga'ofa was gifted to Tonga by Japan to replace the ferry Princess Ashika which sank in 2009 with the loss of 74 lives.

Vi said they would stay at the island over the weekend.

"It's quite safe to sit there. Everybody's ashore and only the crew on board," he told Matangi Tonga.

"Category four is very, very rough weather so you have to avoid it as far as possible."

Meanwhile the director of Tonga's National Emergency Management Office, Leveni Aho, fears Ian is still intensifying.

"The potential and the threat now lies in the islands of Vava'u and Ha'apai in the next 12 to 34 hours," he said.

Destructive winds are likely to begin several hours before the cyclone's centre passes overhead or nearby Vava'u in the next 18-24 hours, and across Ha'apai on Friday afternoon local time.

Heavy rain, the flooding of low lying areas and very rough seas are also expected.

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