Tough Times in Tonga

Friday, February 16, 2018
Just 24 hours prior to our arrival in Tonga, the category 5 cyclone Gita hit the main island of Tongatapu with maximum power. We arrived in a country with no electricity, no water supply, 30% with no home, but a lot of hope and optimism. The plane we arrived with from Auckland was delayed 5 hours and was carrying not only us, but also the Red Cross from New Zealand.

One of the houses where the roof didn't disappear completely in Nukualofa, Tonga
Luckily our guesthouse was still standing and the owner Yvette went out of her way to make it comfortable for us during these tough times in Tonga. We quickly met Ken, a New Zealander living in Tonga, who had traveled to the capital to help out. He took us for a drive in the devastated capital Nuku'alofa.

Otai Aisi in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
In downtown Nuku'alofa we managed to find some Otai Aisi (coconut/watermelon drink) along side some mixed BBQ. The struggle to keep food from going bad, had emptied the entire capital for ice. Many stores had been removed from the face of the Earth and the locals lined up at the gas stations in fear of running dry on gasoline.

One of the main landmarks on Tongatapu; Captain Cook Landing Site destroyed by the cyclone, Tonga
The next two days we made our way around the island by foot and in a rental car. We met kids asking for our water bottles, family fathers asking for money for food and whole families living in their cars, because their homes were destroyed by the cyclone. But we also saw an optimistic population already rebuilding the broken towns and villages. Years of damaged has been done and it seems like the local Tongans are already pushing to finish the many tasks.

Ha'amonga 'a Maui Trilithong on Tongatapu, Tonga
Many roads where blocked and getting around the entire island was practically impossible. But we did manage to make it to the Ha'amonga 'a Maui Trilithon (or as I like to call it; Stongehenge Jr.). The site was closed off, like everything else.

Mapu 'A Vaea Blowholes on Tongatapu, Tonga
At Mapu 'A Vaea Blowholes a house had been abandoned during the cyclone, suitcases full of clothes had been packed in a rush, but eventually left as the family must have had to flee the scene. The blowholes themselves seemed to be intact. They must have put on quite the show when Gita rolled over the coast.

Royal Tombs in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
One of the first places to be cleaned up was the Royal Tombs in Nuku'alofa. Burial grounds for the royal family and a very important place in a traditional absolute kingdom, which Tonga is. The royal family lives in great wealth here, while the rest of the country lives in relative poverty.

Free Church of Tonga in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
Christianity is a very important part of Tonga society, and during the cyclone many sought shelter in the churches. The churches and cathedrals are often strongly built and most of them took less damage than the regular houses of the nation. Maybe that's why there was only two casualties.
One thing is for sure, they weren't ready for a category 5 cyclone like Gita. Most of the population called cry wolf and when they got the message: "this cyclone is gonna hit you, and hit you bad" on Saturday night, the show was already over.

A rarely closed Talamahu Market in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
Sunday morning the hardware stores opened in an attempt to let people prepare for the storm, but police shut it down. No working on Sundays. So when the cyclone hit on Monday, no preparation had been made. They literally just took a blow to the face with no guards raised.

Local beer in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
Even in the aftermath of one of the worst cyclone to ever hit Tonga, we ended up having a cold local beer in Nuku'alofa. A symbol of the optimism and raised heads after the storm. Tonga won't lie down and cry for help, they'll rebuild together.

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