Recovery from a natural disaster is tough but is made easier with the help of friends and neighbors. I witnessed both when I visited the Old Harbour area in Vava’u, a remote island chain in the Kingdom of Tonga, after Cyclone Winston slammed into Fiji and Tonga a little over two weeks ago.
I met local taxi driver Aki Taufoa’u and his family of seven living among the rubble of what was once his home with what is left of their personal belongings. Aki and his family lost virtually everything they owned when the storm literally blew away their home.
Aware the storm was on its way, Aki and his family had grabbed what few possessions they could from the house and managed to find shelter on the other side of the island just hours before the cyclone hit. He says he can still remember the roaring sound of the winds and the driving rain that swept away their home and most of its contents in seconds.
Those winds swept two of the family’s mattresses into the nearby mango trees and where they now hang entangled there like giant pillows, drying in the sun.
Aki and his family are already starting to rebuild their home-partly from remnants of the old structure. “We should have a simple roof over our head in about a week. Till then we’ll sleep rough and hope it doesn’t rain,” he said stoically.
That’s where friends come in. Around 100 meters up the road, Aki’s neighbor Paul Tonga Junior was hammering a tin roof back onto his own home which was not quite a badly damaged as the Taufoa’u family house. Looking on from the road, his father, Paul Tonga Senior, said, “Just about everyone round here lost their roofs, but Aki lost the whole house. We all pitch in and help each other re-build so we can get back to a normal life.”
Right now, Tonga media is reporting that about 17 families are still living in tents in Tonga after Cyclone Winston.
It isn’t the first time to rebuild and won’t be the last. In 2001 Aki and his family lost their first home at a different location on Vava’u island due to Cyclone Waka, which he says stripped just about every tree on the island of its leaves. Aki says the agricultural and infrastructure losses for the whole island were huge after Waka, but “we just got on with it and rebuilt then, as we will rebuild now. That’s what we must do.”
A similar spirit of cooperation has also been evident regionally.
Following Cyclone Winston, aid has poured into Fiji from many of its Pacific neighbors, including Tonga. The Tonga National Emergency Management Office has delivered food, water, shelter and kitchen kits as well as assessment teams to the Fijian island of Namuka. The Emergency Management Office in Tonga says Fiji assisted Tonga several times following severe tropical cyclones in the past, so when the latest storm hit Fiji hardest, Tonga was only too willing to help despite troubles on its home soil.
The category five storm, which slammed into the north coast of the main Fijian island of Viti Levu, killed at least 43 people in Fiji, forced the evacuation of 6% of the country’s population, and destroyed whole villages in the remote Lau and Lomaiviti island groups. Initial assessments suggest significant losses to the Fiji economy, particularly in agriculture, tourism, and the sugar industry.
In Tonga, the trail of destruction wasn’t nearly as extensive as in Fiji, but the storm—which came within 40 kilometers of the northern Vava'u island group—blew off rooftops, sent down power poles and power lines, and flooded many houses.
It is times like this that you need your friends the most.