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Powerful cyclones pound South Pacific islands

Jan 1, 2003

The present El Niño cycle seems to be responsible for the cyclones that have hammered voyagers and residents of the Central and South Pacific.

The last bad cycle in the South Pacific occurred in 1982-'83 when the Society Islands were hit by seven cyclones (one of these actually doubled back to hit land twice).

Two cyclones passed west of Fiji early in the 1997-'98 season. Neither of them went over land, but since then three killers were spawned in the warm waters around 5° S.

The first of these, Martin, began north of the Cook Islands of Manahiki and Rakahanga. As it increased in velocity and moved south, it washed over the atoll of Manahiki, basically destroying the island for habitation. The storm left 14 people killed or missing and the survivors homeless. One man and his son were last seen tying themselves to a 55-gallon oil drum before they were washed out to sea. A few of the survivors were washed ashore on Rakahanga, which was largely destroyed by Martin.

A couple on a 27-foot voyaging boat were fortunate. They had put into Suvarov Atoll (240 miles southwest of Manahiki) to make repairs and wait out the storm. Fortunately, Martin moved off to the southeast, and they only had 35-knot winds in the lagoon, but the people on Mopelia in the Western Society Islands were not so lucky. Only one woman on that small atoll survivedshe had tied herself to a coconut tree. The atoll itself is beyond habitation, and will be for many years, as the storm generated seas that surged across the low-lying island, sweeping everything before them.

Damage was also done to Maupiti, which, although a small island, is not all low-lying like many atolls. Maupiti has heights that rise to 1,220 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, Martin was followed shortly afterwards by Osea, which did far more damage to Maupiti. From radio reports, it appears that Osea virtually wiped out the north side of the island of Bora Bora, destroying just about everything between the village of Vaitape and the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Tahaa, Raiatea, and Moorea also suffered damage, but fortunately the yachts on the hard at Raiatea all survived unscathed. Osea was followed by Pam, which inflicted more damage to the Cook Islands.

The eastern North Pacific has not escaped unscathed either, as witnessed by the hurricanes that inflicted so much damage and loss of life around Acapulco, as well as flooding in Southern California.


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