* Category three storm hits New Caledonia
* French nickel firm suspends mining, but keeps smelters
* The cyclone alert was widened on Monday
(Updates weakening forecast, adds nickel mining impact, quote)
By Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Westbrook
WELLINGTON/SYDNEY, April 10 Cyclonic winds and
heavy rain buffeted New Caledonia on Monday, prompting residents
of the French South Pacific territory to seek shelter and halt
mining of nickel, its most important export.
Cyclone Cook hit the main island at almost the same time as
high tide, packing winds of up to 200 kph (124 mph), bringing
down coconut trees to block roads and forcing residents to seek
"Right now we are in the eye of the storm, it is calm, but
before the wind was strong and the rain was heavy," David Sigal
told Reuters as he sheltered in the town hall of Poindimie,
about 50 km (31 miles) north of where the storm hit land.
Floods, and waves as tall as 10 metres (33 feet), were also
forecast by weather authorities.
"The threat to New Caledonia is very serious," the
meteorological service said in a cyclone alert.
The storm hit land late on Monday afternoon as a Category
Three storm, said Virgil Cavarero, a forecaster at Meteo New
Caledonia, below the destructive Category 4 predicted earlier,
which would have been a level off the most dangerous wind speed.
Authorities widened their cyclone alert on Monday, however,
warning residents nearly everywhere in the archipelago to seek
shelter before evening.
Nickel group Societe Le Nickel, a subsidiary of French
conglomerate Eramet, has suspended mining at its five
locations in New Caledonia, though smelting operations continue
at a reduced level in the capital, Noumea, the firm said in a
statement emailed to Reuters.
New Caledonia is one of the world’s largest sources of
nickel, and mining and metals processing plays a major role in
its economy. Its two other main nickel producers, Glencore Plc
and Vale, were not immediately available for
Cyclone Cook, tracking southward, is predicted to pass
within 50 km (31 miles) of Noumea during the night. Strong
winds, heavy rain and rain are forecast to batter the 400-km
(250 mile) length of the main island and smaller islands nearby.
As a precautionary measure against the cyclone, none of the
roughly 100 guests staying at the packed hotel Le Lagon, in
south Noumea, will be allowed to leave in the evening, said
manager Emilie Coste.
After passing through New Caledonia, Cyclone Cook is
forecast to gather strength and hit flood-soaked New Zealand, as
the threat from recent Cyclone Debbie dissipates.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY and Charlotte Greenfield
in WELLINGTON. Additional reporting by James Regan in SYDNEY.;
Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)