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Six months after volcanic eruption and tsunami, Tongans who lost everything have plans for their future

Reverend Kisina Toetu’u and his wife Maa’imoa will never forget the deafening blast and intensity of Tonga’s underwater volcanic eruption.

Everything shook, then the sky began to darken.

“Everyone was running and crying,” Reverend Toetu’u told the ABC.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano was the largest documented by researchers since 1883, triggering a tsunami that generated waves up to 15 meters high.

Residents of Mango Island, one of the closest to the volcano, could see the giant waves approaching.

“We couldn’t grab anything, we just ran,” Reverend Toetu’u said.

An 81-year-old woman and a baby wearing only a diaper were among the group that fled to the top of a hill where they remained for four days.

Below them, their entire island was flattened, covered in ash, and every house destroyed.

A man from the community was killed.

Six months later, the 62 evacuees continue to live in a church hall on Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu. They will never resettle on the island they once called home.

The impact of the volcanic eruption severed the country’s only undersea communications cable, preventing people from contacting loved ones for weeks. (The ordinary life of Tongans)

Around 85% of Tonga’s population was affected by the January 15 disasters, with three people killed and thousands displaced.

International aid to the Pacific nation has been swift, but it has left the kingdom vulnerable to COVID-19.

A virus outbreak in February hampered recovery efforts and overall progress has been slow.

Despite the triple disaster, communities have shown innovation and resilience, and ambitious resettlement plans are underway.

And now there is hope that the situation is “much better”, according to local aid workers on the ground.

A Tongan woman hangs clothes on a clothesline outdoors.
The Mango Island community says they have received many supplies of food, water and clothing.(Photo: Kalolaine Manu-Moli)

New one-of-a-kind village to relocate hundreds of people

On the ashes of the January eruption, a new village is being built on the island of Matatoa.

The Paletu’a project is a first of its kind for modern Tonga with the aim of relocating hundreds of Kanokupolu.

Along with the Ha’apai group of islands, their village on the west coast of Tongatapu was among the hardest hit by the tsunami.

The $15 million initiative is led by the King and Queen of Tonga and is expected to be completed in around two years.

It also includes plans to relocate the Mango Island community to Eua Island where 18 new homes will be built.

As development on ‘Eua nears completion, residents of Mango will be moved to temporary homes as early as next month, Reverend Toetu’u said.

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The eruption sent huge plumes of smoke and ash into the atmosphere.

Project director Mosese Vakasiuola said plans for Matatoa Island are extensive.

It is the first time the country will develop a settlement area from scratch, he said.

“There are going to be road systems, electricity, water supply and residential homes as well as municipal facilities, a town hall and all of those things,” he said.

But despite being in limbo for six months, not everyone is happy with the prospect of never returning home.

“The younger generation comes to terms with the fact that they have to move in terms of safety and for their dream future. The older generation still has a strong connection to where they grew up,” Mr Vakasiuola said.

A person walks past a damaged building with palm trees in the background.
Some islands were completely wiped out while others had only a handful of houses left standing. (Reuters: Malau Media)

Tonga Red Cross Secretary General Sione Taumoefolau said from what he heard from locals, ‘it’s 50-50 of people who want to leave and those who want to stay’ .

But he thinks it’s the best solution, as the new village is designed to withstand a Category 4 cyclone.

Reverend Toetu'u and his wife pose in front of their fishing boat.
A fishing boat from their fleet of nine was the only thing Reverend Toetu’u salvaged from Mango Island. (Photo: Kalolaine Manu-Moli)

Reverend Toetu’u said most people in his community are aware that it is not safe to return to their island and agree to move, but he is worried about their livelihoods.

When he recently returned to Mango Island, he recovered only one fishing boat – from their fleet of nine – which had been blown over the top of a hill by a wave.

“The government has promised to replace all the boats, so we still hope that will happen,” Rev. Toetu’u said.

The community is grateful for all the food, clothing and supplies the government has provided, but help with getting boats is the next crucial piece of support, he added.

Calls for mental health and social support

Concerns have been raised about the social and mental health impacts associated with losing identity and having to start a new life.

Mr Vakasiuola said there is a complementary plan to support those in the new settlement.

But Drew Havea of ​​the Civil Society Forum Tonga (CSFT) – an umbrella organization for NGOs – believes more needs to be done now to improve communication between the government and the displaced.

“There has been very little consultation on the whole relocation from a civil society perspective. There needs to be more consultation,” he told the ABC.

“What we need is a clear policy on moving and relocating people. We need to have a roadmap of what that means so people understand.”

Blue-roofed church standing among the debris.
Tonga’s recovery has been slowed due to COVID, but there is hope for major new home construction projects.(Supplied: Australian Defense Force)

The CSFT is trying to ensure that a support network will be in place in the new village.

In the meantime, they have provided weaving materials and other hobbies to evacuation centers so that people have ways to spend their days and generate income.

Although time is running out and there is some resistance to relocation, Mr Havea says overall there is a sense of hope.

“Hope and faith that what they expect will be much better than where they came from,” he said.

COVID-19 adds to rebuild stress

The resettlement project is only part of the nation’s recovery effort, which Vakasiuola said is moving slowly.

“In terms of food security and people’s livelihoods, it’s quite fast,” he said.

“The slow part is building the infrastructure we’ve identified, that’s the nature of the beast.”

Crystal Áke, safeguards coordinator for the MORDI Tonga Trust, said the slowdown in the rebuilding effort was largely due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The NGO, which helps vulnerable communities in rural areas, had to pause much of its initial work due to COVID-related risks.

“The community too, as a whole, was very worried,” Ms Áke said.

“They knew what COVID could do, they saw it, we saw it happen in Fiji. And so a lot of them actually asked that we stop a lot of the work that we were supposed to be doing. “

Ms Áke expects the resettlement of communities displaced by the eruption “to take time”.

“So moving forward, we are actually targeting a lot of these communities to get them food and water secure, before moving on to resettlement,” she said.

Tongans line up to plant crops, wearing face masks.
COVID-19 restrictions have stalled initial efforts to meet basic community needs and begin replanting crops.

Last month, the World Bank pledged additional funding $20 million ($28 million) to support the country’s recovery efforts.

Tonga’s finance minister, Tatafu Moeaki, said the disasters had led to an “unforeseen funding shortfall”, and he welcomed the additional support five months later.

He said it would help them better prepare for and mitigate against climate-related disasters and emergencies.

Australia has also provided support packages of up to $19 million since January and sent Australian Defense Force personnel to assist with cleanup efforts and deliver disaster relief equipment and supplies.

A soldier walks through an area of ​​complete wreckage carrying debris.
Australian Army soldiers clean up debris on Atata Island, Tonga.(Provided: Australian Defense Force, David Cox)

The community demonstrates innovation and resilience

Despite the challenges, Ms Áke is optimistic Tonga is on the road to recovery and things are getting back to normal.

“I feel like Tonga is making good progress…helping each other. I think we’re making the most of what we have right now and what we can do,” she said. declared.

“Our morale is higher because we see that the community itself is still very proactive. And so I think that’s one of the best things we can see is that people are still in good spirits. mood.”

A Tongan woman stands among the crops holding a box of lettuce.
Rural communities have been involved in disaster recovery initiatives. (Provided: MORDI Tonga Trust)

Mr Havea has also seen the community find innovative ways to grow crops, saying some of the agricultural recovery on the main island has been “quite amazing”.

“A lot of women’s groups are getting up and planting vegetables,” he said.

“I think it’s something quite new, that we’re seeing the participation of women in agriculture.”

He said they would continue to provide planting material and equipment to help with farming.