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Asia Dive News : French Polynesia declares Bora Bora a disaster area

BORA BORA, French Polynesia - The French Polynesia government's Council of Ministers will declare "a state of natural disaster" for islands and atolls damaged by last weekend's powerful swells, President Oscar Temaru said Tuesday after having visited the Leeward Islands of Bora Bora and Raiatea.

Temaru headed up a special damage assessment delegation as it continued for a second straight day to talk with residents and hotel officials about the extent of repairs and rebuilding required in the Leeward Islands, the Windward Islands and a few Tuamotu atolls. On Monday, the delegation visited the Tuamotu atolls.

"A declaration of a state of natural disaster is essential after what I have just witnessed in the Leeward Islands, but also in the Tuamotu Archipelago," Temaru told Tahitipresse. Wednesday's scheduled declaration by Temaru's Council of Ministers will allow victims to benefit from special relief funds from the French State and the territory.

"I was scared," said Tahu Arii, who lives on a "motu", or islet, inside Bora Bora's world famous lagoon. This particular motu is the site of a future St. Regis hotel. Other families living on the motu's point no longer have a place to live. "My two children eight and nine years old were traumatized," one of them said.

"'Is it a tsunami?' one of my frightened daughters asked me as the flooding water rose waist high," said the wife of Marcel Putaohe as she starred at the mixture of coral, sand and water that covered her living room floor.

A neighbor of the Putaohe family said, "We didn't evacuate the islet because we had heard that the swells only involved the Australs and the Tuamotu archipelagos." She was referring to French Polynesia's southernmost Austral Islands and the central part of the sprawling Tuamotu Archipelago, composed mostly of sea level atolls.

A total of some 60 families on Bora Bora had their homes damaged in varying degrees when the swells first arrived late Saturday night.

"Bora Bora is our pearl and it was hit," Temaru told Tahitipresse. "The hotel complex InterContinental had to close its doors," he said, referring to the InterContinental Moana Beach, which has 64 over-the-water bungalows. The hotel has announced it will be closed for at least six months.

"One hundred and twenty employees are going to be unemployed for several months and the government must take their situation in consideration," Temaru said, referring to the InterContinental employees.

"This natural disaster is also a hard blow for the (French) Polynesia tourist industry," Temaru said. He added that images of the damage caused by the exceptionally high swells were broadcast on several American television networks, including CNN. "Ever since the tsunami in the Asian countries, tourists are hesitating to travel," he said. "However, it's rare that such powerful swells hit our archipelagos," Temaru said.

Mara Aitamai, who runs a government agency that provides aid to the outer islands, said building anti-cyclone shelters on some of the places hit by the swells is an obvious necessity.

However, the swells were not caused by a cyclone or and were not part of a tsunami, the French meteorological service reported Tuesday. Instead, the swells, a series of waves gradually diminishing in size, were provoked by a strong tropical depression 2,000 kms (1,243 miles) south of French Polynesia a week ago.

Gilles Tafaatau, the Temaru government's housing minister, said Tuesday that he wants better-adapted houses built for the future. The government, Tafaatau said, will be able to release funds quickly and immediately start building pre-fabricated houses for those who are homeless.

Source: Tahitipresse