Football players
stranded in Samoa

High school athletes’ return flight
to Hawaii was canceled Friday
because of a cyclone

A group of Hawaii high school football players hunkered down in their Pago Pago hotel yesterday, playing cards and video games as rain, winds and waves from Tropical Cyclone Heta lashed American Samoa.

"We don't even think about it," said Philip Elisara, 17, who plays for Radford High School's Rams.

Football players -- 24 from various high schools in Hawaii and two from the mainland -- have been stranded in American Samoa since their flight was canceled Friday due to rain and wind from Heta.

The players and their coaches had traveled to the island after Christmas for a week-long cultural visit and a football game on New Year's Day.

Heavy rains pummeled the ground while gusty winds beat against the windows, football player John Reis of Kalaheo High School's Mustangs said in a telephone interview. Reis said he saw trees snapping in the high winds. He added that he was weary of the weather but assured that he is safe at the Pago Airport Inn.

At 8 p.m. HST yesterday, the hurricane was 200 miles west of Pago Pago and traveling southeast at 13 miles per hour, according to National Weather Service lead forecaster Jeff Powell. The cyclone passed about 60 miles southwest of Savaii, an island in the neighboring nation of Samoa, at about 8 last night.

"The peripheral effects are going to be pretty hefty," said NWS forecaster Bob Ballard.

Near the eye of the hurricane, winds have gusted to 196 miles an hour, which would qualify the storm as a Category 5 hurricane, reserved for the most powerful hurricanes. Tropical cyclones are hurricanes located south of the equator.

Pago Pago had gusts of up to 75 miles an hour yesterday. Bad weather conditions were expected to continue last night and dissipate by late this afternoon.

Winds were powerful enough yesterday afternoon to uproot trees and spread branches and debris into the territory's streets.

Tamaligi, Apia, Samoa, villagers watched Cyclone Heta's effects yesterday as waves hit a sea wall and coconut trees yielded to intense winds while Samoan government heavy machinery worked to remove two downed trees in front of the Morris Hedstrom Supermarket.

A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch remained in effect for American Samoa, except for Swains Island, but forecasters did not expect Heta to make landfall.

No injuries or casualties had been reported as of early yesterday afternoon, but the storm already was causing complications.

In the neighboring nation of Samoa, coastal villages experienced high swells that swept rocks ashore and forced the closure of roads. Telephone service was reported out in some villages on the west and northwest coasts of Savaii Island, and some instances of electrical failures were also reported as winds gusted to more than 100 miles an hour.

Samoa's National Disaster Committee called a meeting yesterday to coordinate response to the storm. American Samoa ordered all of its police officers to duty.

Football player Reis, who is visiting the island for the first time, said he has kept in touch with his family in Waimanalo on a daily basis. He has also taken advantage of his time on the island by going sightseeing with his friends' relatives and learning about island stories.

Most players have spent their time at the hotel playing video games or cards in their hotel rooms, he said.

Some players and their coaches noted that the community's hospitality made it easier for them to cope with missing their families and dealing with the tropical storm.

"If we were somewhere else, it would be a lot harder on us," said Fred Salanoa, head football coach for Radford High School's Rams. "They're having fun out here no matter what the weather is."

Community members treated the players and coaches to see the movie "The Last Samurai" Saturday. They also drove them to church yesterday morning and bought food for them from McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

"The boys are fine. We're taking care of them," said Sivaki Livai, head football coach for Kahuku High School's Red Raiders.

Their trip to American Samoa has also led players from rival football teams to bond.

"Before we came, we were like strangers," said Elisara. "Now we're like brothers."

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Keoni Wagner said officials would reassess weather conditions last night or today to determine whether today's flight to American Samoa will remain on schedule.

Stu Glauberman, spokesman for Aloha Airlines, said a flight leaving Honolulu for Pago Pago at 2:50 p.m. tomorrow is still on schedule.

The Associated Press and Star-Bulletin reporter Mary Vorsino contributed to this report.



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