SAMOA NEWS PHOTO VIA BARRY MARKOWITZ
Matu'u residents on the island of Tutuila assessed yesterday the damage caused by Hurricane Olaf to the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa church hall.
reported after storm
Hurricane Olaf directly hits
3 islands of American Samoa,
cutting phone service
PAGO PAGO, American Samoa » Hurricane Olaf, packing winds of up to 190 mph, passed within 60 miles of the U.S. territory's main island of Tutuila yesterday and then blew directly over a nearby group of smaller islands.
Telephone service to the Manua Islands of Ta'u, Ofu and Olosega was interrupted, and officials were waiting for reports of damage after the storm crossed the area.
"Olaf has made a direct hit on American Samoa's Manua Islands, and most people have weathered the storm," Kevin Vang, coordinator of the Australian-Pacific Centre for Emergency and Disaster Information, said today in Sydney. "There are reports of widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure, and about 1,000 people are still sheltered in the main high school and churches."
Tutuila was not hit as hard as initially expected; the island's emergency operations center received reports of two landslides and a few downed power lines but no immediate reports of property damage. Emergency shelters that were opened Tuesday were closed again yesterday.
The National Weather Service, however, had warned that the Manua Islands, which are also part of American Samoa, could be devastated by winds up to 140 mph, with higher gusts. The Manua Islands are home to about 2,000 people.
"We pray that lives of people in Manua will be spared by the cyclone, as it did our lives on Tutuila," Gov. Togiola Tulafono said.
Olaf had wind gusts up to 190 mph, making it a Category 5 storm, the most intense. The weather service said the storm generated destructive waves of 30 to 40 feet on the shores of all islands.
Tulafono had declared a state of emergency Tuesday but ordered government workers to return to their jobs yesterday.
Schools remained closed, but teachers were told to report to prepare for resumption of classes today.
Meanwhile, New Zealand and U.S. planes scouring the South Pacific near Samoa today found three missing fishing boats and three people floating in the sea after Olaf battered the area.
Samoa was spared most of the massive cyclone's destructive power when it suddenly changed track overnight to pass north of the island group.
"We've just found three people in the water, so we've dropped a life raft and communications equipment to them," New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center spokesman Steve Corbett told National Radio.
He said the trio were safe in the life raft, and rescuers were working "to get them to shore as soon as possible."
Search and rescue operations were continuing today.
The cyclone passed 50 miles to the north of Samoa, officials said. Prior to its change of track, the storm was heading directly toward the small nation, prompting it to declare a state of emergency.
"It's already being referred to as 'Samoa's Great Escape,'" said Poloma Komiti, deputy chairman of the nation's National Disaster Management Committee.
Why Olaf changed course "is a bafflement to the meteorological people," he said.
The islands suffered some damage from winds, heavy rain and pounding seas, and 15 people had been treated for minor injuries, he added.
After Samoa, Olaf was expected to head toward the southern Cook Islands, which suffered glancing blows from Cyclones Nancy and Meena in the past two weeks.