Hurricane Irene and Cyclone Waka

There is no comparison between the intensity of Hurricane Irene, now downgraded to a Category 1, and Cyclone Waka (renamed Wiki due to the severity of damage).  Her category 4, 115 mph winds devastated the South Pacific in the waning days of 2001. During our eight-year circumnavigation on our sailing catamaran, Pacific Bliss, Gunter and I visited the Vavau Island Group in the Kingdom of Tonga. We arrived a full nine months after the storm had wrought her damage, yet we came upon people in remote areas who were still suffering. For them, there was no government safety net, no FEMA disaster supplies, and no officials to help the stranded. We anchored in Hunga Lagoon and brought what supplies we had on board to the villagers on top of the hill. This is our story, excerpted from the second book in my “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss” trilogy, to be called “Sailing the South Pacific:”

Giving Is Receiving

Hunga Lagoon, Ika Lahi Resort, Vava’u, Tonga

Branches flailed against corrugated iron roofs. The wind rose like an approaching freight train, moaning through the shuttered windows and doors of the little village on the hill above Hunga Lagoon. Fierce gusts found their way deep into the homes of the huddled occupants, causing the flames of their kerosene lanterns to flicker and tremble. Entire groves of frangipani trees toppled like a pile of dominoes.  The angry wind had already ripped away their leaves and flowers. The delicate flowers of the hibiscus trees had disappeared; then the branches began to break.

But that was only the beginning of Cyclone Waka’s fury this past New Year’s Eve.

What sadistic irony!  Exactly two years after they appeared on television channels around the world––the first to celebrate the New Millennium––the joyous dancers of Tonga entered this New Year frightened and full of despair.

In Vavau, Tonga’s most beautiful and treasured island group, the sea slammed against the shorelines, devouring anything in its path. Waka uprooted trees; destroyed docks; overturned boats; and ground churches, schoolhouses, and hospitals to rubble. Even in the relatively protected harbor of Neiafu, a catamaran broke loose of its moorings and flew right into Ana’s Waterfront Café, where for some weeks afterward, the owners continued to carry on business around it.

Most of the waterfront docks and structures had to be rebuilt. The governments of other South Pacific countries such as French Polynesia contributed workers and materials to rebuild schools and hospitals. Missions and charities rebuilt churches and handed out food necessary for survival. But for the inhabitants of Vava’u, there was no such thing as government aid to rebuild. Nine months later, these poor people are still recovering.

In Hunga, the village near where our yacht, Pacific Bliss, is anchored, the villagers staggered drunkenly in the wind as their homes fell around them, the sand stinging their faces like icy sleet. They ran for cover to whatever dwelling was still standing, carrying a few meager possessions with them. Coconuts thudded on roofs and cisterns with the force of exploding cannonballs. Shade trees were uprooted and torn apart until none were left standing in the little village. Every gust of wind hurled more branches and debris against any structures left standing until the landscape was finally flat.

Then came the rains.

The water rushed and swirled until horrid, twisting ravines replaced pleasant, tree-lined paths. When it was all over, the villagers struggled to rebuild their simple homes out of the muddy mess.

But then came the sun.

The rays shone mercilessly down to their barren and ugly world. They had no protecting shade.  They labored under the sun’s cruel glare for weeks on end.

The storm was over in a few days. But the devastation it wrought would seemingly last forever.  During this time of misery, the villagers found it hard to believe that beauty would ever again come to Vavau.

We arrive here, almost nine months later, to find that the lush vegetation has returned to Tonga’s beloved Vava’u.  There’s no doubt about the lasting after-effects of Cyclone Waka as we cruise through the islands: Overturned boats and canoes still line the shores and reefs of the anchorages and lagoons. The luxuriant new growth doesn’t hide the uprooted trees, sawed-off tree trunks, and stacks of old wood that contrast with the few newly-constructed buildings. For the 80 percent of the population that lives off the land, recovery is painfully slow. It can take up to ten years for a coconut tree to bear fruit. Replanting right after the storm meant using nuts that the farmers could have used immediately for food. Newly-planted banana plants will not bear fruit until the following year. The most immediate crop is the papalangi (European) vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, string beans, and cabbage—the produce that we have been enjoying here. These vegetables could be produced quickly and sold at the markets in Neiafu in return for nails and building materials. Fish from the sea, of course, was another source of income.

Günter and I have enjoyed all the bounty that Vava’u has to offer for over a month now. We have purchased fresh produce at the market every time we return from gorgeous anchorages to the port in Neiafu. We have feasted our eyes on the lush landscapes, pearly beaches, and multihued rock formations of the islands. We have frolicked and snorkeled in the emerald green waters of the lagoons. By the time we anchor off the Ika Lahi Gamefishing Lodge in Hunga Lagoon, Günter and I have decided that we want to give back.

To read more, please click here.

Path from Village

Tongan Family in Hunga

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