Tonga tsunami damage
Images from Tonga’s shoreline to structures and trees following the tsunami.

News about Tonga. “The volcanic eruption in Tonga that triggered a tsunami was hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima during World War Two,” NASA says.

From the BBC: “The eruption “obliterated” a volcanic island north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa. Tonga says more than four-fifths of the population has been affected by the tsunami and falling ash. Three people were confirmed killed.” 

Before the eruption, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic island was two separate islands joined by new land formed in 2015. NASA says the eruption was so powerful all the new land is gone, along with “large chunks” of the two older islands.

The widespread emission of volcanic ash, gases and particles from the eruption has proven to be a massive challenge for Tongan officials.  Early on, there were fears that water sources had been polluted by the thick blanket of ash, increasing the risk of diseases like cholera and diarrhea. However, testing in recent days had cleared ground water and rainwater as safe to drink.

Fine volcanic ash and emissions, however, continue to pose a public health risk. Exposure could potentially cause breathing difficulties, affect the cardiovascular system, and irritate the lungs, eyes and skin.

New Zealand naval vessels have conducted contactless delivery of vaccines
New Zealand naval vessels have conducted contactless delivery of vaccines.

An additional complication is that Tonga has been Covid-free. Now the island nation is fearing that the virus will tag along with the aid that’s being delivered. An Australian warship on its way to this South Pacific island nation has recorded about two dozen positive cases onboard, and will now continue in a “Covid-safe manner.” Aid agencies are providing coordination assistance remotely, but local authorities and community groups run the response on the ground. New Zealand delivered vaccines to Pacific Island nations by naval ship, then on helicopters or inflatable boats, before handing them over to teams on land. The international aid community is familiar with non-contact measures during the pandemic. For example, contactless methods were also used to distribute relief supplies to Vanuatu, in the aftermath of Cyclone Harold, in April 2020.

Photos from Tonga are still hard to come by. The country is only now re-establishing some connections through satellite telephone links. Tonga’s only underseas communication cable is still ruptured.  The country’s internet is still down, although a repair vessel is underway.

Here’s another photo from the Tonga Consulate:

The island of Tongatapu has been coated in a layer of volcanic ash. 

In Part I of this blog series, I wrote about the volcanic eruption in Tonga and the tsunami that followed. I ended the blog with the story about the New Year’s Eve cyclone that hit the Vavua Islands of 2000, and how Gunter and I decided to give back.  This is Part II of that story, excerpted from the second book in my “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss” trilogy, “Sailing the South Pacific:”

Giving Is Receiving, Part II

Hunga Lagoon, Ika Lahi Resort, Vava’u, Tonga, August 2002.

I consider how to go about giving back. In the past we have had unfortunate experiences with giving to village chiefs and matriarchs. We would find out later that our gifts were not distributed to the needy families and children. Many times our donations were resold for profit. So after breakfast at the Lodge, I seek the advice of the friendly New Zealand proprietress.

“I’ve had bad experiences with giving as well,” she says, tossing her long red hair. “One of my vacationers, a doctor from New Zealand, gave a box of medical supplies to the clinic in the village up over the hill. Hundreds of dollars worth. That should have lasted the little village an entire year or more! Yet a few days later a villager came asking at the resort for a tube of antiseptic cream. He had a badly skinned knee. ‘Have you been to your nurse?’ I asked him. ‘He should have some.’ It turned out that the nurse at the clinic had sent the entire box to his family in Nukualofa, where they sold them all!”

“Would it be better if I walk house to house and distribute gifts where they’re needed?” I ask.

“Hmm,” she answers. “You could, if you had someone to point out the needy families… I know! I’ll ask Moule to accompany you after her shift. She is done working at the Lodge by noon. She herself comes from a family of nine, and they could use some help.”

I return to our table where Günter is picking up the tab. I tell him what I’ve discovered. Then I suggest that we start with our unopened box of 96 servings of Idaho potato flakes. “Moule’sfamily would be perfect for that.”

Before we leave the Lodge, the owner introduces me to Moule. She is a teenager with a wide but shy smile and an unusually slight frame for a Tongan. She agrees to lead us to her village at noon. When she calls on the VHF, we find that she has enlisted the help of two Tongan girlfriends who live in the village high on the hill.

Tongan women
Gunter poses with the local girls who selected the families in need.

The girls accompany us to Pacific Bliss. There we gather tins of food, clothing, shampoo, bars of soap, and cosmetics. Then, back on land, we trudge up a narrow footpath for what seems like forever, carrying everything in bags and backpacks. Finally we reach the crest of the hill. Cyclone Waka has destroyed everything!  Not a tree stands. There is no longer a jungle, not even a path to lead to the village clearing. Such devastation is shocking. All I see is a pitiful assortment of run-down, hastily built bamboo huts. What misery and poverty! I feel like crying.

Moule leads us to the first hut, where her own family lives. I give the introductory speech I have prepared. Moule translates for her family. “We travel and live on a boat called Pacific Bliss. We are moored by the Lodge in your very beautiful Hunga Lagoon. You are blessed with such wonderful Nature here. Because your lagoon has given us so much pleasure, we want to give back to your village. We understand that your village suffered a horrible cyclone and that it will take a long time to recover. So we want to help by giving you some small gifts and food.” 

I explain how to use the Idaho mashed potatoes by heating water and then stirring it in. Then we let each of the family members choose a T-shirt from our bag. Afterward, I distribute cosmetics and soaps to the women. 

Günter holds up a petite princess-waist dress that we had purchased in a used-clothing store. “Who can fit into this?” he jokes.

“Not any of us!” Everyone laughs.

Moule appears to be the only lean one of the family, but the dress is too small even for her. 

Our second stop is a bent-over widow with scraggly gray hair whose children had left Vavau for Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. She seldom hears from them. She lives alone in a tiny dilapidated one-room shack. We leave her a supply of tinned food and a bag filled with soaps and shampoos. 

“I’ll begin to eat this today,” she says haltingly, holding up a can of chicken breast. 

Next we visit a man whose leg has been crushed in an accident. He sleeps on the floor, on a woven mat. There is no other furniture in the hut. We leave him cans of stew and trust that someone will come in to make it for him.

After this a wizened grandmother, who looks to be over a hundred years old, breaks into a wide, toothless grin as she sees the food we carry. We can’t imagine her being able to chew!  So Günter hands her a stack of canned soups.

We go from home to home on bare ground that is broken only by thin tufts of grass. No landscaping or flowers grace these homes. 

This is the poorest, most downtrodden village I have ever seen in my life! 

Tongan
One of the families to whom we donated food.

Later, Günter turns to Moule, “You chose the eight needy families well.” He tries to lighten the mood. “But I’m still worried about finding a Tongan girl to fit into this small dress.”

“I know a lady who has a small daughter,” Moule laughs.

We head toward their house. The daughter is quite small. The dress will fit. After my standard speech about our enjoying the bounty of the lagoon, the mother says, “But I don’t have anything to give you in return.” 

Moule assures her that it is okay; we expect nothing in return.

Our trip has been well-planned. Our bags are empty—except for some nail polish and costume jewelry. We give these to the girls who have helped us so cheerfully. They are amazed and flattered. As they walk us down the hill and back to our dinghy, we again emphasize how much we appreciate the beauty of Vavau and the wonderful friendliness of the Tongan people. I do not know whether they understand what I mean, but I do know that Günter and I will treasure this special day in our hearts for the rest of our lives.

A special thanks to each of you who contributed clothing, glasses and gifts during our Bon Voyage Party in San Diego. Some of those items were used in Tonga.

Click here to read Part I of this series. For Part III, click here.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


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