(PHOTO: The kava/church hall of the Church of Tonga in Talau.)
My first real tribulation in Peace Corps Tonga has been the infamous Cyclone Rene. Cyclone Rene, a category-four cyclone, first made its presence in Tonga over the Niuas late Saturday evening on the 13th of February. It later made its appearance on Valentine’s Day in Vava’u after continuing its southerly path towards Ha’apai, Tongatapu, and ‘Eua late Monday. The cyclone made substantial damage throughout the Kingdom as power, water, and other essential services have been knocked out for days. However, power and other amenities have been slowly getting back online since the brunt of the storm passed last weekend. In Tongatapu, air travel was suspended for Monday and the most part of Tuesday as the main power grid that connected the international airport was severely damaged from the storm. Similar situations have been apparent with the rest of Tonga’s island groups.
(PHOTO: Down power lines, a very common scene throughout Neiafu.)
In relation to the situation in Vava’u, as of Wednesday evening the 17th of February, most of the power in central Neiafu and its neighboring villages have been restored. Tonga Power Limited has been overhauling extra hours to quickly restore power to the rest of the main city as well as the outer villages in the main island. Cyclone Rene knocked down hundreds of trees and power lines. In addition, several buildings suffered significant damages; particularly those who did not take extra precautions prior to the arrival of the storm. For the most part, the majority of the population boarded up their windows and received minimal damage to their property. Fallen trees and raised roofs have been a very common sight around Vava’u. Luckily, there have been no reported deaths in the Vava’u island groups.
As for myself, the entire ordeal began Friday when I arrived by boat to Neiafu around noon. I had the intention to purchase some fresh vegetables from the market and then catching an afternoon boat back to Matamaka. Everything was going as planned until I received a phone call from PC headquarters in Nuko’alofa warning me of the approaching cyclone and the prohibition of anymore sea travel until further notice. In awe with the new revelation, I realized I was in no way prepared for an event such as a “consolidation” right at that moment. I only had the clothes that I had on with no opportunity to go back to my island grab my sleeping bag, some extra clothes, and other essential items. Luckily, I always carry my important documents and laptop with me every time I leave the island in case something like this was to happen. I did not even thing about closing my windows since I was only going to be gone for three hours! Fortunately, I ran into my principal who was returning to the island and I asked to please prepare my house for an imminent cyclone which was madly approaching Tonga.
Anyway, the official “consolidation” orders came in mid-afternoon Saturday. All the PCVs met at the Mormon Church near Mormon high school in Kameli. Surprisingly enough, it was a beautiful sunny day. I was very appreciative that my Tongan family supplied me with a small foam mattress, sheets, and a pillow for the entire consolidation party. They were very sympathetic when I told them that I would just sleep with a lavalava (sarong-ish cloth) and my bag as a pillow for the next couple of days. Remember I did not have the opportunity to bring anything?! Regardless, I was very grateful for their thoughtfulness. They even went as far as to bring me food when the storm was not at its peak. I was never more excited to see lu sipi (taro leaves with sheep, baked in an ‘umu) after eating peanut butter and jelly crackers days. My Tongan family definitely made our little house arrest at the Mormon Church a bit more relaxing for me.
(PHOTO: The scene outside the Mormon Church before Cyclone Rene made her appearance.)
The weather finally started to turn sour late Sunday afternoon. It started with the sun setting and filling the skies with a bright yellow/orange tint (something that would not be seen for a couple of days) before the dark eerie clouds penetrated the mountains surrounding Vava’u with a mean wind that only amplified as the night progressed. Electricity was short-lived after the initial storm bans of Rene made its presence loud and clear. I had a few decent laughs with some of my PC friends in Ha’apai via Digicel until the towers went offline. The “No Network” message seemed to have plagued everyone’s cell phone.
There were many concerns about our safety with our consolidation point for the Vava’u group. The room where we were placed had windows in two sides of the room. To make matter worse, a line of coconut trees with hundreds of coconut projectiles had a perfect aim on our wall of glass windows. We were lucky the windows held up for the entire duration of the Cyclone. Furthermore, we had a perception that our consolidation point would have access to drinking water, a kitchen/cooking facility, and showers. Guess what? Nothing! Someone really should pick a better spot next time. I ended up showering using a small fire hose over a drainage pipe. I was desperate for a shower after wearing the same clothes for almost four full days.
(PHOTO: An outdoor kitchen damaged in Talau.)
Cyclone Rene left Vava’u Monday morning. We were shocked we still had to stay at the Mormon Church for an extra night. It may have been windy in Tongatapu, but Vava’u had clear skies for once. In spite of everyone running short on water, we technically did not have clearance to leave the building. It was a bit frustrating, but we tried to make the best of it. Later that Monday evening, we played hide and seek and some other games around the Mormon compound. The electricity was still out so the entire place was honestly quite creepy. Joseph Smith, is that you hiding in the corner? (Fakakata pe). Tuesday morning finally came around and we were given the clearance to leave the Mormon compound. Finally! We were all getting very restless after being in a confined room for so long.
(PHOTO: The house of the church leader from the Church of Tonga in Talau)
Cyclone Rene left with trail of destruction in certain parts of Vava’u, but it could have been worse. For the most part, the more modern buildings weathered pretty well. Only the most decrepit buildings fell-ill with Rene’s winds. In Talau, the kava/social hall for the Church of Tonga was completely destroyed. Unfortunately, the faifakau’s (church minister) house had a similar fate. In addition, my family’s peito (outdoor kitchen) roof was blown off completely. The same thing happened around the area. In relation to Matamaka, I only got cleared to take a boat back Wednesday afternoon; however, there were no boats at the wharf. I hope to go back as soon as possible and check on my house. I have been told that overall my house has survived the storm, but my pit toilet has blown away. In addition, a section of the school wall had supposedly collapsed. I will see for myself as soon as I get back. I will write an update the next time I can use the internet again.
Until next time, ‘ofa atu!