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Relief Efforts Begin in Hurricane-Ravaged Cook Islands

January 5, 1987

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (AP) _ An international relief operation began today to restore vital services and aid those left homeless by a hurricane the prime minister called the worst ever to hit this South Pacific island chain.

Prime Minister Sir Tom Davis said the islands’ economy had been set back years by Hurricane Sally, which hit the island Saturday with 90 mph winds and 30-foot waves before moving out to sea Sunday.

No casualties were reported, but Davis estimated damage exceeded $25 million. He said 1,000 people were left homeless on Rarotonga island, the largest in the chain at 26 square miles, and virtually wiped out the main cash crops, tropical fruits and vegetables.

It also destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Avarua, Rarotonga’s waterfront administrative and commercial center, including many government buildings, Davis said.

He called the storm ″the worst hurricane that we have ever recorded in history.″

The Cook Islands, a mainly Polynesian island group 1,900 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand, is a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. Rarotonga is home to about half of the chain’s 18,000 people.

New Zealand flew in an air force Hercules transport plane with emergency supplies and a team of army engineers to help restore power and water supplies. The U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, Paul Cleveland, said the United States would provide $25,000 in immediate aid. Britain, France and Australia also pledged emergency assistance.

Emergency food supplies were distributed around the capital. With normal drainage and sewage systems swamped, authorities advised residents to boil drinking water to guard against disease.

Australia’s domestic Ansett Airlines flew a Boeing 767 to Rarotonga on Sunday to collect up to 500 Australian and New Zealand tourists but some holidaymakers decided to stay to help in the cleanup, said airline spokeswoman Keira Louckyer.

″Houses were demolished, the shopping center destroyed, and the hotel had coconuts flying through the roof,″ said Rick Adams, a New Zealander. ″It was disastrous. There was mud, rocks and coral scattered through the whole town. It was completely wiped out.″

Waterfront Commission general manager Ioane Iro said it would take at least $6.5 million to rebuilt Rarotonga’s only port, which was virtually destroyed by tidal waves.

Iro spoke to reporters as bulldozers began clearing away corrugated iron warehouses twisted under the weight of tons of coral boulders swept on shore.

″I’ve never seen anything like it,″ he said. ″The harbor looked like a washing machine. Boats were just simply lifted out of the water and onto the beach.

″We’ve lost our dredging barge. It’s either been sunk or it’s hundreds of miles out to sea. Without it no shop can dock here,″ Iro said.

Australian Associated Press said the islands will have to rely on airborne supplies. There are plans, however, to use small boats to bring vital food and building supplies into the harbor from cargo ships at sea.

The South Pacific hurricane season runs from October through March.

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