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It turns out it won’t – it’s already tried unsuccessfully to land in Ha’apai that morning, so instead we pile into an old Air Vanuatu plane along with a nun anda family on its way to a funeral. I’m with my New Zealand Red Cross colleague Kelsi and two Tonga Red Cross Society (TRCS) staff Unga and Poli, who we are training in communications field work, as part of a capacity building and story collection trip two months after Tropical Cyclone Ian.
Without Unga (TRCS administration officer) and Poli (TRCS dissemination officer) we would not have access to the local community. They act as guides, translators, fixers, referees and a reassuring presence for the Ha’apai people who have just been through the most devastating natural disaster of their lifetimes.
Despite a massive clean-up, I am shocked to see that almost every house has a tarpaulin on its roof or a tent in the yard. Churches are missing their roofs, coconut trees have roofing iron entangled in their branches, and in some places the only way to tell there was once a structure is the concrete pad where the foundations stood. Apparently during the storm a concrete gravity water tank sitting high up on a stand disappeared, never to be seen again.
First up we visit Olivia Esei, a 39-year-old mother of two, whose first instinct when the storm approached was to cook food for her children. Tears streaming, she tells me how, as the family was eating its meal,“ all of a sudden the wind blew our roof off and we looked up and we could see the sky”. As the rain poured in, Olivia and eight other family members (including five children and her elderly mother)looked outside for any shelter but everything had gone including their outside bathroom. An old water tank was the only thing left standing so they clambered inside to hide from the cyclone’s winds, which were gusting up to 300kmh.
It must have been so frightening in that tiny, dark space, first trying to empty out the deep water, and then pulling over the cover, wondering if the rickety 30-year-old structure would hold. Olivia says her children were asking her if they were all going to die. What a question for a parent to have to hear.
Eight-year-old Olivia junior tells me later that the noise frightened her and she held onto her baby sister, as her mum told them, “don’t worry, everything is going to be alright”. Now, every time it rains or blows, the traumatised children cling to their mother, or crawl into her bed, asking if the cyclone is going to come again.
Olivia’s family slept on the veranda of her house until some New Zealand tarpaulins and shelter kits arrived. Her brothers are living in a Red Cross tent – one of them has 10 children and the tents are the size of the average New Zealand double bedroom. They are incredibly stuffy – Ha’apai is one of the hottest places I’ve ever experienced - and I feel a pang of guilt that night returning to my breezy fale on the beach.
The next day we jump on a barge heading to remote Mo’unga’one Island, where 26 of the 27 houses, plus the church and school, were destroyed. The journey is painstakingly slow because the barge is loaded with concrete pillars and bricks to use in the rebuilding of the tiny island community. There’s no wharf at Mo’unga’one so the captain backs as close as he can to the rocky shore and suddenly someone is shoving me towards the tailgate and into the sea.
We trek through the devastation to meet 68-year-old grandmother Hulita Poutele, who squeezed herself and her six grandchildren under the floorboards of her house as the roof blew away and the walls fell in. Leaning on her walking stick, she tells me that everyone was silent. They were so scared they literally could not talk.
Hulita’s family had a visit from one of our shelter delegates Kevin Duignan, who showed them how to use the shelter kits (nails, hammers and other building materials). They’ve also received a cooking set, hygiene kit, tent and tarpaulin, but this frail old woman is still sleeping on the floor of the shack she uses as a kitchen, along with a mother cat and her recent litter of kittens. I ask her if there’s anything she needs and she says no, she is very comfortable thanks.
We almost end up staying on Hulita’s island that night – the barge battery has died, and when it is replaced, one of the boat’s two engines dies. We spend two hours limping back to Ha’apai, but even through my seasickness I am awed by the beauty of this place, with its flying fish, puffy clouds and turquoise coloured water.
The next day we spend some time with the female officer in charge of the Tonga Red Cross Society Ha’apai branch, Luisa Va’asi Palu. This incredible 30-year-old has four kids under the age of 10, and had to leave them with other people during the cyclone so she could run the Red Cross response. Her five-year-old was in the hospital with a drip in his arm, left in the care of a nurse. Not knowing if her family was alive or dead, Luisa mobilised 78 volunteers and used her satellite phone (donated by New Zealand Red Cross) as the sole form of communication with the outside world for the first three days after Tropical Cyclone Ian. It’s been hard on both her and her family – it’s not the norm here for a woman to be out working rather than raising the kids. She’s hardly been home for the past two months, but says she believes in the work Red Cross is doing.
That afternoon, as I’m lying on a bench under a tree waiting for our (again) delayed plane, and listening to the gentle snores of the baggage handler one bench over, I think about how hard it is for women like Luisa to break the norms of her culture and leave her children to go to work. About how lucky I am that I’m not expected to marry and produce 10 children. About how I can get on a plane and leave, when many people here have never been further than their own village. And I think about the more than 20 old people who have died in the two months since the cyclone and hope that I will never be in the position where I could die of a broken heart.