3 rescued at sea after South Pacific cyclone

Locals look at a ship anchored in the harbour of the Samoan city of Apia as Cyclone Olaf approaches
Waves from Cyclone Olaf rock a ship anchored at Apia, Samoa, on Wednesday.Stringer/australia / Reuters
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Rescuers saved three people found floating in open water after Cyclone Olaf struck the region with winds of 160 mph, and a search for more survivors was planned Thursday.

New Zealand and U.S. planes found the survivors Wednesday during a hunt for boats missing from a commercial fishing fleet based in the Samoan capital of Apia.

The Category 5 storm moved out to sea after passing within 60 miles of the Manua Islands, where wind and rain caused landslides and downed power lines.

The islands, part of American Samoa, were not hit as hard as forecasters had expected, and no major damage has been reported.

Olaf had gusts of up to 190 mph, and sent waves 30 to 40 feet high onto the shores of Ta’u, Ofu and Olosega, the National Weather Service said. The islands had a few downed powers lines, and the main island of Tutuila had two landslides.

As the cleanup began, Gov. Togiola Tulafono urged the islands’ 2,000 residents to help each other however they could. “We all need each other’s support, help and cooperation,” he said.

Tulafono ordered government workers to return to their jobs Wednesday. Teachers were told that classes would resume Thursday.

Olaf was expected to head toward the southern Cook Islands, which suffered glancing blows from Cyclones Nancy and Meena in the past two weeks.

The last major hurricane to hit American Samoa and Samoa was Heta, which plowed through in January 2004 with winds gusting to 200 mph.

American Samoa, in the South Pacific, is the United States’ southernmost territory, lying 2,300 miles south of Hawaii. It was acquired by the United States from Germany in 1899 for a naval base and refueling station, and has a population of about 58,000 scattered over six islands.

The huge storm seas generated by Olaf have caused havoc with fishing boats in the area, with 14 emergency beacons being set off. But officials said they were not sure if all beacons were legitimate distress calls.

“There were four vessels causing us concern and we’ve located two of them,” , New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre spokesman Steve Corbett told Radio New Zealand.

To the southeast of Samoa, the Cooks Islands were cleaning up after another weaker storm, Cyclone Nancy, passed nearby on Wednesday, blowing over houses, ripping off roofs, felling power lines and trees, and causing flooding on the main island of Rarotonga.

“The lucky thing was there were no casualties, no injuries,” Inspector Aka Matapo at the Cook Islands Emergency Operations Centre told Reuters.

Cook Islands authorities are now preparing for the stronger Olaf, which is forecast to move onto the southern Cook Islands in the next 24 to 36 hours, he said.

If Olaf hits, it would be the third cyclone in as many weeks to strike the Cooks, a tax haven whose 21,000 people live scattered across small, low-lying atolls.

Cyclones are common in the Pacific at this time of year and areas with large population often have special shelters.