Meena meaner than Sally

Remote Palmerston atoll in the Southern Cook Islands was thrashed with winds from Super Cyclone Meena gusting up to 210 kmh this (Saturday 5th February CI time / Sunday 6th February NZ time) afternoon.

No reports of injury or damage had been given to the National Emergency Operations Centre in Rarotonga, 500 kilometres southwest, by mid afternoon.

“Seas are very rough and they are having very heavy rain at the moment,” said Deputy High Commissioner Maara Tetava.

“Meena is meaner than Sally,” said government chief meteorologist Arona Ngari, referring to the last big hurricane to hit Rarotonga, in 1987.

Tonight, police had yet to order home owners from coastal properties on Rarotonga 500 kilometres to the south west of Palmerston, despite forecasts of waves 40 foot high at the cyclone centre, estimated to pass over or very close by to Rarotonga by 8am tomorrow morning.

However Deputy Commissioner Maara Tetava said that police would mount patrols to stop people sightseeing during the night.

Telecom Cook Islands prepared to dismount its main earth satellite dish, rated at 65 knot proof.

“Forecasts are for gusts up to 145 knots,” shrugged Telecom Chief Executive Stuart Davies, a New Zealander.

This means less than a handful of officials with satellite phones will maintain contacts with the outside world as Cyclone Meena hits with what is expected to be full force by 8am tomorrow morning.

In the past, Cook Islanders have treated most hurricanes as entertainment, travelling around just 31 kilometres of coastal road to check out the biggest waves hitting the tiny island.

Residents spent the day before Cyclone Meena joking their way nervously through emergency preparations as the biggest cyclone in living memory bore down on them.

“These cyclones always happen at night,” complained electrical trainee, Jim Nimerota.

“And always on the weekends, never during the week” added Mii Manuela, a computer services worker, as island residents waited for the Sunday disaster to strike.

Winds of up to 170knots - more than 300km per hour – were being forecast by Hawaii’s Joint Typhoon Centre, who upgraded the cyclone to a category four or five Super Cyclone.

Attention briefly shifted from Rarotonga after noon today as a high to the east eased, potentially allowing the hurricane to slow its southern march and slide rightwards into the vacuum — towards the even more vulnerable resort atoll of Aitutaki.

Protected by an encircling reef, Aitutaki is still less than three metres high in most coastal areas.

Aitutaki resident Mike Henry told family in Rarotonga that the wharf was flooded with sea surge by soon after sundown at 8pm local time.

However as the evening continues, satellite tracking continues to show the cyclone bearing south east.

Back down south by 110 km, Rarotonga based coastal researcher Don Dorrell says a forecast direct hit will impact on Rarotonga’s north shore capital, Avarua, and may see the economic heart of “the entire nation cast down,” said Dorrell.

He was predicting utter disaster if the cyclone hits with full force.

“Town, the wharf, harbour, everything stuffed. Gone.”

Dorrell said Meena was twice as strong as 1987’s Cyclone Sally, which caused an estimated US$50m in damages to Avarua.

“During Sally, the significant wave height which is the top third of the wave was eight metres high.

“This one is 11 metres, with the average top 10% at 10 metres during Sally. This one is 14 metres.”

Each metre of wave height represents a fourfold increase in wave power, said Dorrell, who has consulted for the Cook Islands government on coastal protection devices.

Sustained wind speeds were much higher as well, he said, with an average of 49 knots during Cyclone Sally and between 80 to 90 knots for Cyclone Meena.

“If it comes down to the west of us, it will be a national disaster.”

New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner Mathew Patterson was one of those following advice to evacuate coastal areas.

“We’re shifting everything,” he said from the commission’s official staff quarters on Rarotonga’s northern coast of Nikao.

High Commission staff were not keeping a head count of holidaying New Zealanders.

“They don’t have to register with us.

“And all Cook Islanders carry New Zealand passports anyway. We don’t regard them as any different.”

No exact data was available but the last time a cyclone this big was seen in Rarotonga is as far back as 1943.

More recently, Cyclone Martin tore through the pearl farming atoll of Manihiki in 1997, 1,400 kilometres north of Rarotonga, drowning 19 people.