I first heard about the volcanic eruption in Tonga when I received an emergency alert on my iPhone. Back in San Diego for the winter, I was surprised to see a tsunami alert for the entire California coastline. (We live in a condo overlooking Sail Bay; on a clear day, we have a view of the vast Pacific.) All we experienced was a high surf, but I was glued to the news about Tonga. Gunter and I had sailed into the port of Neiafu, in Tonga’s Vavau Island Group, during our world circumnavigation and have a special fondness for the area and its people. 

Out of 181 countries in the World Risk Index, Tonga ranks only behind Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands for its vulnerability to natural disasters. The recent explosion of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, located about 43 miles north of Tonga’s main island, shot ash and gas nearly 20 miles into the air. Much of that ash fell on Tonga’s islands, including airport runways and wharves, complicating initial efforts to reach and evacuate villages or bring them emergency supplies. Stored rainwater sources were also contaminated with ash. The majority of houses on some islands were destroyed. Not long after the explosion, Tonga’s primary internet and telecommunications cable was severed, and the country lost connection with the world.

The confirmed death toll so far, is three. Tongan officials said the Pacific nation’s practice of running tsunami drills had played a part in saving lives. The first airplanes since the Saturday, January 15 explosion finally arrived on the cleared runway on the following Thursday, carrying emergency supplies and water.

Volcananic Eruption, Courtesy NASA
Image of volcanic eruption in Tonga taken from the Himawari-8 satellite on Jan. 15, 2022, at 5:50 p.m. Tonga Local Time. This volcanic eruption produced a 3.9 foot (1.2 meter) tsunami which struck Nukuʻalofa, the capital of Tonga. Also visible in this image is the remnants of Tropical Cyclone Cody to the southwest. (NASA/public domain)

Tsunami waves may have been as high as 50 feet closest to the volcano. The sound of the final eruption that triggered the tsunami was reportedly like a bomb exploding. “Our ears were ringing,” locals said. “We couldn’t even hear each other.” 

Tonga tsunami 2022
Photo credit, Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga
Photo credit, Beach, Consulate of the KIngdom of Tonga
Photo credit, Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga

Tongans are no strangers to natural disasters. Cyclone Waka was one of the worst. Her category 4, 115 mph winds devastated the South Pacific in the waning days of 2001. We arrived in our catamaran Pacific Bliss 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, “Sailing the South Pacific:”

Giving Is Receiving

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

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 lines 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 a 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 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 Vavau, 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, 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.

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 upon their barren and ugly world. They had no protecting shade.  They labored under the sun’s cruel glare for weeks on end.

Afa, 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.

But it has! Lush vegetation has returned to Tonga’s beloved Vava’u. Nevertheless, there’s no escaping the lasting after-effects of Cyclone Waka. Overturned boats and canoes still line the shores and reefs of the anchorages and lagoons. And the luxuriant new growth cannot hide Vavua’s uprooted trees, sawed-off tree trunks, and stacks of old wood. For the 80 percent of the population that lives off the land, recovery is painfully slow. It can take 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.

Tonga from the book, "Sailing the South Pacific" by Lois Joy Hofmann
Path from village to the people we helped in Hunga Lagoon.

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.

I consider how to go about it. 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. 

How we decided to give back to the locals in Hunga Lagoon is told in Part II of this story.

Click here to read Part II 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.


At 6:15 pm on July 19th, the sky looked weird and the air turned deathly still.

We had planned to go to an outdoor concert in Amery, Wisconsin that fateful Friday night. We had packed four folding chairs and packed them in the trunk along with rain jackets, just in case. Fortunately, we’d left the car in the garage with the door shut.

“Can’t tell whether it’s going to rain or not, said Gunter, my husband. “If it does, we can go to the fish fry instead.”

The four of us—Gunter and I along with his younger siblings, Helmut and Helga—remained on the patio, staring at the sky. It was turning greenish-black.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “Let’s get inside.”

We entered the sunroom with picture windows facing the gardens and White Ash Lake. Then it hit. Suddenly the sky roared like an oncoming freight train—and then whooshed through the treetops like a jet engine. We stood there, transfixed. Our feet were riveted to the floor. We were seeing, firsthand, the sheer, raw power of nature. One huge pine twisted, uprooted, and crashed to the ground in a slow, deliberate motion. Then another. And another. Altogether, our six trees at the shoreline fell on top of each other like dominoes. Their trunks and branches carpeted the entire lawn between our house and dock. Beyond, we could see White Ash Lake kicking up angry waves. My heart pounded but common sense prevailed.

“Move away from the windows; they could break!” I yelled.

Terrified, yet fascinated, the others just stood there.

White Ash Lake Tornado 2019

The pines along the lakeshore fell across the yard like dominoes.

“Move!” I insisted. “This is a tornado. I’ve been in one before. Follow me down to the bunk room. That’s our safe space.”

They didn’t get it.

Then a dull, heavy THUD shook the house. The roof! The sky turned black and the power went out.

We all raced down to the bunk room, a windowless Man Cave we had fashioned out of the utility room for our grandsons. Gunter grabbed flashlights but our trusty generator kicked in after 10 long seconds. We had lights! Five minutes later, the generator stuttered and stopped. My stomach clenched and my tongue felt like sandpaper. To drown out the godawful noise, I chattered about the tornado I’d experienced in as a child in 1952. My Bavarian husband and his siblings had never experienced one in Germany; they had no first-hand knowledge.

When the racket subsided, we ventured upstairs. It was only 6:45 although it had seemed like an eternity. The sky was no longer black; the storm had moved on. Our first impulse was to go outside. We were shocked to discover there was no way out. Fallen trees and branches filled every window and door. Out of the lakeside windows, I could see nothing but trees across our entire lower patio and yard. We couldn’t see the dock, but I thought we saw a glimmer of white beyond the tangle of trees. “That must be our pontoon,” Gunter said softly, still in shock.

Helga called our attention to water dripping onto the kitchen counter and splashing onto the floor. “Looks like the roof is leaking,” she said. We sprang into action, positioning every wastebasket and bucket we could find. Later, we found water dripping from our rec room ceiling. We covered the sofa below with towels.

Because we couldn’t exit through any of our doors, Gunter manually opened the garage. We all filed out behind him, astonished at the destruction. Our driveway was blocked by fallen trees; but no matter, so many trees had fallen from the woods onto South White Ash Lane that we could barely make out the road!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My daughter Kim and son-in-law Mike insisted on driving to Northern Bliss as soon as they could. They had experienced straight-line winds but even those downed six trees on their property—thankfully, none near their house. The downpour had created a river of rushing water down their driveway. We begged them not to try; they wouldn’t be able to get through. But they were determined. Their usual 20-minute trip took 2.5 hours, chainsawing their way through. The worst devastation they encountered along the way was my four-acre wooded property, with hundreds of trees down, some of them across the road. There they joined the drivers of five other blocked cars who were also chainsawing their way through. Their last challenge was to move parts of trees blocking our dead-end road. Mike and Kim wanted to bring us back to their home, but we said no. We were the bucket brigade, protecting our property from further damage from the rain. We four spent the night the old-fashioned way: by candlelight. We collected rainwater from the buckets to flush the toilets.

White Ash Lake Tornado

Holly removes branches from my hydrangea and hosta garden.

Early Saturday morning, Mike called on all our relatives living in Minneapolis to come on down to help. Six arrived, each with his or her own chainsaw. Mike’s brother-in-law helped him tarp the roof, which was broken right at the peak with a massive oak branch inside the hole! A huge tree had uprooted and tipped the propane tank partly on its side. The jolt had cut the buried line from the generator to the propane tank; Mike went to Menards to purchase copper tubing. Then he built a new line. The others focused on cutting the trees that had fallen from the woods across the street onto our driveways. Downed power lines crossed the driveway exit, but they could clear the entrance. My granddaughter Holly especially impressed me. She owns a “Queen” battery-powered chainsaw and cut and removed branches from my hydrangea and hosta gardens. Seeing six relatives—without helmets, chaps and boots—wield those chainsaws impressed Helga. In Germany, such work would require licensing, training, and special clothes. Chainsaws would not be a common item in their garages.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By Saturday afternoon, we had generator power again. Those in the White Ash Lake area without generators waited 1-2 weeks for the electric company to repair all the lines. They had 6000-7000 customers without power in Polk County and brought in 100 linemen from Minnesota. The following week, The Wisconsin National Guard arrived to help open the roads to remote homes on the other side of White Ash Lake.

In addition to structural damage to the house roof, minor damage to the cabin, a destroyed dock and boat lift canopy, arbors, and numerous smaller items, Northern Bliss lost 22 mature oaks and pine; it will never be the same in my lifetime. A similar story can be told among all the property owners around North and South White Ash Lake. Not one of 80+ properties was spared. I expect to hear the buzz of chainsaws, the grinding of stumps, the roar of heavy machinery, and the pounding of hammers until frost—as the recovery continues. How ironic! My latest blog was about migrating north to the sounds of silence here in the land of lakes and woods. The silver lining is that all are safe, and no lives were lost, thank God. We will rebuild.

Next: The Recovery Begins

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 https://loisjoyhofmann.com.