‘Is there going to be another tsunami?’: Tonga in limbo a year after volcano eruption | Tonga
When ‘Eleni Via, 67, lived on Atata Island, her family was able to live off the land and the sea, surviving on crops grown in their garden and seafood fresh from the ocean.
But in the last year, life has changed dramatically. Now, they struggle in a new home, trying to cultivate a land that isn’t as fertile as it should be. For the first time in her life, Via has to think of ways to pay her water and electricity bills while making ends meet. In Atata they could depend on fishing for basic needs and income. In her new home on the country’s main island, Tongatapu, she wakes up every day wondering how she will provide for her family.
Like many Tongans, Via’s life was turned upside down on January 15, 2022, when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted. Satellite images showing the incredible scale of the eruption were broadcast across the globe, but as the world’s eyes turned to Tonga, the country disappeared. Damage to the undersea cable that supplies Tonga’s internet and much of its communications infrastructure meant that for days the extent of the disaster was unknown.
When the government was finally able to communicate a statement, the news was devastating: the explosion had caused a tsunami that engulfed a number of the country’s islands. 84% of Tonga’s population was affected by the tsunami or volcanic ash.
Residents who lost their homes moved to the main island of Tongatapu. The government called it an “unprecedented disaster”. The World Bank estimated the cost at $90.4 million – equivalent to 18.5% of Tonga’s GDP – most of this cost coming from the relocation and reconstruction of villages affected by the tsunami.
Eleni Via with her husband Ma’uhe’ofa Via and their granddaughter Tu’aloa outside their new home in Masilamea, Tongatapu. Photo: Israel Mesake Taukolo/The Guardian
Atatā was among the hardest hit. The New Zealand Defense Force described the damage on the island as “catastrophic” and a UN assessment found that dozens of structures were damaged while the entire island was covered in ash.
A year later, Via, with her husband, Ma’uhe’ofa Via, and granddaughter, Tu’aloa, finally left the home of relatives they had been staying with since the tsunami and moved into a settlement with new houses. in the village of Masilamea in Tongatapu.
“We are very happy to have settled here. Our house on the island is destroyed. We are grateful for [what] they were given to us … free of charge,” says Via.
The house has a bedroom, a toilet and a toilet, a veranda where all the meals are made and the food is cooked on the fire outside. They have few utensils and plates. Via wants a kitchen for cooking and a place for storage.
Housing remains a problem across the country, as many homes were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami.
On the other side of the island, in the village of Patangata, lives Mosese Sikulu Mafi, 61 years old, whose family lives in front of the sea and witnessed first hand the devastation of the tsunami.
Despite extensive damage, only six new houses have been built in his community. The government promised ten, but even this will not be enough according to Mafi.
“Currently, there are many houses that need to be rebuilt. The problem is that there is no equal distribution and the surveys that are done do not reflect the reality of living conditions”.
Mosese Sikulumafi’s house in Patangata village was damaged by the tsunami. Photo: Israel Mesake Taukolo/The Guardian
He suggests that to protect people from another tsunami, raise the coast higher and provide another emergency exit.
“At the moment the only way out of Patangata is the road by the ocean and we hope to have a back road that would take us directly inland in case of future tsunami emergencies.”
Still, Mafi remains grateful – his family still has the ocean at their disposal, which produces fish and seafood that they sell by the roadside. And despite the devastation, none of his community was killed in the tsunami.
“I’m just thankful that it happened during the day. If it had happened at night, there would have been a lot of child deaths,” he says.
“We lost everything. I don’t think anyone escaped the wrath of the tsunami.”
Few can escape his memories. Mafi says the last time there was an earthquake, the national tsunami siren went off and everyone ran inland.
Many children are particularly affected. Via’s granddaughter is only five years old, but she lives in fear that a tsunami could strike again at any moment.
“When there’s lightning and thunder, or there are strong winds and heavy rain, she turns to me, ‘is there going to be another tsunami?’ I tell her, ‘no. It’s just rain and strong winds.'”
Meanwhile, as Via puts it, “We put our faith back in God.”