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Polynesia tropical depression upgraded to cyclone

by Staff Writers
Papeete (AFP) Feb 4, 2010
The Pacific island of Tahiti was placed on Red Alert and vulnerable residents were evacuated Thursday as a powerful cyclone expected to bring seven-metre waves menaced the island, an official said.

Cyclone Oli, upgraded overnight from a tropical storm, is already drawing menacingly close to Bora Bora and Maupiti in the French Polynesian Leeward Islands, the High Commissioner said Thursday.

The two have experienced winds of more than 120 kilometres per hour (75 miles per hour) and travel by car has been banned.

More than 650 tourists trapped on Bora Bora have been rehoused in hotels while every school in western Polynesia is closed.

The population have been told to abandon primitive grass and mud dwellings and head to solid buildings such as town halls, schools or churches.

The High Commission -- the territory's de facto government -- has recommended "staying at home or joining communal shelters".

The hospital told workers to remain at their posts for the coming 24 hours.

The High Commissioner -- had warned the inhabitants of the two isolated Polynesian islands of Scilly and Mopelia to evacuate but they refused and are no longer reachable.

Tahiti and Moorea, on which the majority of Polynesians live, were put on red alert by the High Commission at 6:00 pm on Wednesday (0600 GMT Thursday), and traffic was to be prohibited from 10:00 pm (0800 GMT Thursday).

The archipelago of the Leeward Islands includes Raiatea and Huahine, which are expected to be hit a few hours later.

French Minister for Overseas Territories Marie-Luce Penchard, who has been in Papeete since Sunday said her scheduled programme had been completely changed.

"There are no planes taking off so I will leave on Friday morning as soon as possible," she said.

"A helicopter will recover 18 people who live by the sea in the Antilles and will bring back them to Faa'a (international airport), in Tahiti," the minister said.

"That is going to be complicated tonight," she added. Penchard said that "if tomorrow there is widespread damage, I will go to the afflicted areas to see how France can help Polynesia".

"There are very many families facing grave health dangers and I am very anxious for these families," she said.

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