Tonga cleans up after devastating cyclone
The Tongan town of Pangai on January 12, 2014, after it was hit by a major cyclone
Cyclone Ian, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the tiny South Pacific kingdom, battered the central Ha'apai islands group over the weekend, unleashing winds in excess of 105 knots (200 kilometres per hour).
Tonga's Director of Emergencies Leveni Aho said communications with the stricken island group were re-established Monday, confirming extensive damage in the area, which is home to some 8,000 people.
He said there was one confirmed death, reportedly a woman, but the potential loss of life could have been much worse given the scale of destruction.
"We haven't had any further reports of any deaths, which is very good indeed, and looking at the amount of devastation it was a miracle that not more than one person has a loss of life," Aho told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Aerial images taken by the New Zealand air force on Sunday showed how winds uprooted trees, tore off roofs and flattened power lines as they blasted through Ha'apai's main island of Lifuka.
"I have not seen such devastating damages from a cyclone," said Tupou Ahomee Faupula, from Tonga's cell phone provider Digicel, who flew into the disaster zone on Monday morning to help restore telecommunications services.
Oxfam New Zealand executive director Barry Coates said rebuilding shattered infrastructure could take years.
"It's not only the people's houses that need to be rebuilt, it's also the infrastructure like the ferry terminal, the port, the roads. It's really badly damaged," he told Radio New Zealand.
Ian started out offshore as a category three cyclone last week but intensified to category five, the most severe rating, as it made landfall, becoming the only cyclone of such ferocity ever to hit Tonga.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the storm front left Tongan waters on Sunday and all weather warnings and alerts had been cancelled.
It said aid groups such as Caritas and Oxfam were sending staff to the disaster zone.
New Zealand has also offered assistance of NZ$50,000 ($41,500) and sent an air force Orion aircraft, while two Tonga navy patrol boats are taking supplies from the capital Nuku'alofa to Ha'apai.