- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 13, 2010

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga — Tongans went to church and prayed Sunday as Tropical Cyclone Rene barreled toward their islands, threatening to intensify and hit the South Pacific nation directly.

After brushing past American Samoa and Samoa on Saturday without doing much damage, the powerful storm was moving southwest on a track that would take it across central and southern Tonga, Nadi Tropical Cyclone Center forecaster Alipate Waqaicelua said.

The storm was centered about 212 miles northeast of the Tongan archipelago at midafternoon Sunday, he said.

“With this southward movement … it’s heading directly toward Tonga,” Mr. Waqaicelua told the Associated Press. “If the center goes right on [this track], then within 24 to 36 hours it will be very close to Tonga.”

The storm will be accompanied by hurricane-force winds, heavy rain and powerful sea surges, he said.

Rene was packing winds of 90 miles an hour with gusts of up to 130 mph and was expected to intensify in the next 12 to 24 hours, Mr. Waqaicelua said.

In the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, there was little evidence of preparations for the cyclone. Few buildings were shuttered, but fishing boats were returning to port.

Tonga’s meteorological office warned that the cyclone could “increase to very destructive hurricane force.”

The storm missed both American Samoa, a U.S. territory, and neighboring island nation Samoa on Saturday, causing heavy rains, high winds and heavy sea swells but sparing more devastation to both areas, which were battered last year by a tsunami that killed 226 people.

Rene never made landfall on either American Samoa’s main island of Tutuila or the Manu’a island group, but the government planned to conduct a damage assessment.

Emergency officials in the American Samoan capital of Pago Pago said there was one death indirectly caused by Rene — a 50-year-old man who died Friday after falling from a two-story building while boarding it up to protect it from the storm.

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