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Cyclone slams American Samoa with 100 mph winds

Teenagers remove their aluminum boat from Pago Pago Harbor, as police officers observe as Tropical Cyclone Rene approaches American Samoa on Friday.
Teenagers remove their aluminum boat from Pago Pago Harbor, as police officers observe as Tropical Cyclone Rene approaches American Samoa on Friday.
Fili Sagapolutele, Associated Press

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — A Pacific storm with hurricane-force winds churned across sparsely populated islands of American Samoa and took aim Saturday for the capital region of the U.S. territory, which is still recovering from a deadly autumn tsunami.

Tropical Cyclone Rene hit the territory's eastern Manu'a islands Friday before growing in strength, with winds reaching 86 mph and gusts to 103 mph by late evening.

Several Manu'a residents reached by phone by The Associated Press said the winds have been extremely strong but they have not heard of any reports of injuries or major damage. Telephone links, however, have been intermittent, and it was difficult to assess damage because it was still dark.

"They're getting clobbered from the back side," said Meteorologist Mase Akapo Jr. with the National Weather Service in Pago Pago.

Heavy rain fell on parts of Tutuila, the territory's most populous island, early Saturday morning, and some low-lying areas were flooded, but the brunt of the storm had not yet hit. The cyclone was expected to be 50 miles east of Pago Pago, the capital, by 6 a.m.

NWS forecaster Carol Baqui in Pago Pago said Rene swirled for a time around the Manu'a islands before it "finally settled north." She said the capital region should begin feeling some of the storm's force before dawn Saturday.

Baqui warned of possible damaging high seas along coastlines with waves reaching 18 feet.

Emergency officials in the capital said there were reports that high winds had downed some trees and electrical lines. The officials also said there was one death indirectly caused by Rene — a 50-year-old man died Friday morning after falling from a two-story building while boarding it up to protect it from the storm.

Territorial Gov. Togiola Tulafono called for calm, urging residents to "be aware and be safe."

Referring to the tsunami that killed more than 200 people in the Samoan islands and Tonga in September, Gulafono said "as we recover from the events of last September 29th, it is a good feeling that we have placed high priority to help ourselves by preparing and spreading the emergency awareness message."

Rene may also threaten Samoa, the Tokelau Islands, Tonga and Fiji.

Diani Donu, forecaster at Fiji's Nadi Tropical Cyclone Center, said Rene is expected pass about 90 miles southeast of Apia, the capital of nearby Samoa, bringing strong gales and heavy seas.

The center said earlier that the cyclone might pass between the Tonga and Fiji, avoiding a direct hit.

Broadcasters in the two countries were urging people to seek shelter, stay indoors and avoid using boats.

New Zealand Red Cross was assisting preparations on Tonga, Nuie and the Cook Islands. International operations manager Andrew McKie said the organization was "issuing warnings ... securing infrastructure and making sure all satellite phones are charged and working."

The NWS said the eye of the storm will likely brush Tutuila.

Residents on Tutuila boarded up windows Friday and stocked up on bottled water, flashlights and candles. Most major businesses closed Friday as did all public and private schools. All 29 public schools in the territory, which has about 65,000 residents, were opened for use as emergency shelters. About 300 people already were using the shelters.

The U.S. Coast Guard was advising vessels bound for Pago Pago to reroute.

Cyclone Heta, the last major cyclone to smash through the region, hit Samoa and American Samoa in January 2004, damaging more than 4,600 homes in American Samoa, the American Red Cross said at the time. It also devastated up to 90 percent of the crops on Samoa.

Associated Press Writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu contributed to this report.