Volcanic mountains

3 months after volcanic eruption, Tonga is slowly rebuilding

WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> Samantha Moala recalls taking a shower at her home in Tonga when she heard what sounded like a gunshot so loud it hurt her ears.

As she and her family rushed to their car to drive inland, ash blackened the sky. The world’s largest volcanic eruption in 30 years sent a tsunami around the world, and the first waves swept across the road as Moala made her way to safety at the airport with her terrified husband and two sons.

A Tonga Red Cross volunteer, Moala, 39, quickly took care of the cuts suffered by others during their flight and provided them with psychological support. She said around 50 of them stayed at the airport for two days until they got the all-clear to go home.

“People were all shocked,” she said. “But I have to mingle with them, help them, get them to trust. It’s a small little island and we got to know each other in two hours.

Three months after the eruption, reconstruction in Tonga is progressing slowly and the impact of the disaster has become clearer. Last week, the prime minister handed over the keys to the first of 468 rebuilt houses the government plans to rebuild on three islands as part of its recovery programme.

Some 3,000 people whose homes were destroyed or damaged first sought refuge in community halls or evacuation centres. Eighty percent of Tonga’s population has been affected in one way or another.

During the first weeks after the eruption, Moala helped by setting up tents and tarps, then cooking food for other volunteers.

It took Tonga five long weeks to re-establish its internet connection with the rest of the world after the tsunami severed a crucial fiber optic cable. This has prevented some families from abroad from sending financial aid to their relatives.

Three people in Tonga died from the tsunami and a fourth from what authorities described as related trauma. The sonic boom from the eruption was so loud it could be heard in Alaska, and a mushroom-shaped plume of ash shot a record 58 kilometers (36 miles) into the sky.

The World Bank estimates the total damage bill to be around $90 million. In the small island nation of 105,000, that equates to more than 18% of gross domestic product.

The bank noted that many coastal tourism businesses – which bring vital foreign income to Tonga – have been particularly affected, with tourist huts and wharves destroyed. The agricultural industry has also suffered, with lost crops and damaged reef fisheries.

ANZ Bank says Tonga’s GDP is likely to contract 7.4% this year, after it was forecast to grow 3.7% before the volcano erupted.

The international community has helped, Tonga has been able to obtain funding of $8 million from the World Bank and $10 million from the Asian Development Bank, as well as assistance from many countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, European Union, United States and China.

But progress has been hampered by the country’s first outbreak of COVID-19, which was likely sparked by foreign military crews rushing to drop off supplies as the ashes cleared. The epidemic has caused a series of closures and the country remains in a state of emergency.

Moala is among more than 8,500 Tongans who have caught the coronavirus since it started spreading across the islands. So far, eleven people have died. Moala said the outbreak has affected many businesses, including her husband’s work as a tattoo artist.

But as the outbreak wanes and reconstruction progresses, familiar island rhythms are returning for many people.

Among those who remain most affected are the 62 people who used to live on Mango Island and around 100 more on Atata Island who may never be able to return home.

The islands are located very close to the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, and the villages have been completely wiped out. The King of Tonga has now offered residents land to settle on one of Tonga’s two main islands.

Sione Taumoefolau, general secretary of the Tonga Red Cross, said there was a lot of work to be done to relocate residents.

It has also been slow to supply people on other remote islands, he said. Many of them are left without internet access after a home fiber optic cable was also damaged and likely won’t be repaired for months.

“Three months later, people are starting to get back to normal,” Taumoefolau said. “But we can see that they still need psychological and social support, those who have been really impacted, especially those who have to move.”