The danger was revealed in a survey conducted on the island earlier this year and has sparked an urgent message from authorities for residents to ‘batten down the hatches’ in preparation for what could be a particularly active cyclone season.
Mana Etches of Emergency Management Cook Islands says the survey showed that if a cyclone hit the isolated outer island, severe damage could occur.
The population of Atiu is 881 and includes 10 people who require special needs assistance or who are elderly. Of all the homes on the island, 160 are in use, while another 230 are unoccupied.
There are 68 homes without the cyclone ties needed to secure houses in a bad storm and 27 incomplete and what are described as ‘informal’ buildings.
The survey found three homes in bad condition and 26 in poor condition, Sixty-one were in good condition, while just 25 were described as ‘excellent’.
Emergency Management Cook Islands director Charles Carlson says the survey results highlight the importance of having detailed information in the Emergency Management’s system.
In the event of a cyclone, the information will keep emergency services ahead in assessing the situation before they get to the island, he says.
“We can then have some fair idea of what to expect – at least 95 per cent of those houses could be damaged because of substandard housing.”
Major damage could be expected to the 230 unoccupied homes as the buildings are not secured adequately to withstand a cyclone, Carlson says.
Experts predict cyclogenesis – the scientific term for the birth of a cyclone - will generally occur between 12 and 14 degrees south. Cyclones tend to move poleward as they develop.
As a whole, the region should expect “near average tropical cyclone numbers”, specifically between eight and 12, and probably about 10, they warn.
Based on data recorded between 1981 and 2010, the Southwest Pacific experiences an average of 12.4 tropical cyclones each season.
Forecasters expect a weak El Nino to develop over the course of this season. El Nino – a period of climactic variation that happens every few years, brings warmer sea surface temperatures and generally means above-average cyclonic activity for the Cook Islands.
The region is now in a neutral phase of the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) cycle, but that could quickly change.
The outlook report says ‘close to neutral’ conditions exist now for both equatorial sea surface temperatures and atmospheric circulation in the Southwest Pacific, although indications of El Niño have been building.
Forecasters used data derived from years characterised by similar conditions to compile this season’s report.
At least four storms are predicted to reach Category 3 strength, or wind speeds of at least 64 knots or 118 km/h.
Three are expected to reach Category 4 strength, with wind speeds of at least 86 knots, and though no Category 5 cyclones have been predicted, they could still happen, the report says.
“While there is a low likelihood of a Category 5 system occurring, recent analogs (data measurements) suggest this type of event is still possible, and therefore this situation cannot be ruled out.”
Should a cyclone warning be issued, the New Zealand High Commission will also look to provide proactive consular assistance to affected New Zealand citizens.
New Zealand High Commission to the Cook Islands development first secretary Joseph Mayhew says once a formal request for assistance is received, further response from New Zealand will depend on the situation.
He says New Zealand aims to provide a fast and effective response in the event of a disaster, and will work closely with the NZ Red Cross and other humanitarian NGOs.
Ways in which New Zealand could assist the Cook Islands include medical assistance, search and rescue and reconnaissance missions, and technical and engineering help.
Cyclone Prevention Tips
Emergency Management Cook Islands says there are a number of ways people can limit cyclone damage to their homes and keep themselves safe.
Secure the roof of your home
Collect emergency supplies such as a transistor radio, torch, and spare batteries, candles, matches, first-aid kit, essential medicines, tinned and dry food, clean water containers, strong footwear and clothing
If a cyclone warning is issued, listen to the radio or watch TV for further information
Secure your house, put shutters up
Secure loose objects
During a cyclone, keep calm, stay inside and listen to the radio
After the cyclone, listen to the radio and follow instructions.
Keep clear of electric power lines.
If you have to evacuate your home, take emergency supplies and first aid kit, and lock your house.