When a tsunami swept over much of Tonga last weekend, Joseph Sikulu, a Tongan national, was in Sydney, Australia, exiled from home by strict COVID-19 travel restrictions. For three days, with most communications lines severed, his family and friends were cut off from the outside world, and Mr. Sikulu feared the worst.
“I grew up here in Australia, but I spent my last few years living in Tonga as Pacific Director for climate action group 350.org. I came back to Australia at the beginning of the pandemic, and I have not been able to go home since because the borders have been completely shut off to the rest of the world.
The great thing about that is that COVID has not reached the shores of Tonga: one case made it through, but they caught it while the person was still in quarantine, and it wasn’t transmitted to the community.
So, they’ve been really strict on who they let in and how people come in. They want to make sure that everybody is vaccinated before they think about opening.
Actually, the first repatriation flight was scheduled to come in on 20 January, but after the tsunami on the weekend, it was cancelled. There are quite a few people from Tonga stuck here in Sydney waiting to go back home.
I’m glad that, being in Sydney I have been able to send support back home, but it’s also very difficult being separated from everybody at the times families usually gather together, like Christmas; but particularly now, when people at home are facing hardship and there’s not much we can do from here.
‘The water was doing funny things’
We were watching TV last weekend, and saw news about Tonga. Then we just started scrolling through Facebook, and seeing all of these stories about an eruption that had happened, and saw people actually going live on Facebook because the water was doing funny things and nobody knew what was going on.
People were live streaming from the coast, just trying to figure out what was happening, and then we watched them running from the tsunami, and screaming, before communications were completely cut.
We weren’t able to talk to anybody from Saturday up until about Wednesday. Actually, on Saturday we had been rejoicing with my family that Cyclone Cody had just swept past Tonga last week, without caused any kind of damage.
We thought that we had escaped the worst, but we didn’t realize that the actual worst was just coming up.
A beach in Tonga, before the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai
‘Everyone was crying’
Natural disasters aren’t a new thing in the Pacific, and systems are in place so that everyone knows what they have to do in the case of a cyclone, but a tsunami is a totally different kind of disaster because it’s unpredictable.
We didn’t know how big it was or how far it had affected, because communications had been cut. We just had no idea of the magnitude of the volcanic eruption, and it turned into this huge thing with everybody saying that it was a once-in-a-thousand-years type of event.
Through all of Sunday, all of Monday, all of Tuesday, every day until we heard from people, we feared the worst.
Some people had access to satellite phone and internet and were able get tiny bits of communication out that gave us glimmers of hope. But we were worried. One person would start crying, then everyone else was crying. It was just so difficult to be disconnected from home, not knowing what’s going on.
I’m just really thankful now that we’ve been able to speak to everybody at home, and find out that everyone’s doing okay.
Resilience of the Tongan people
The thing I’m not concerned about is the resilience of my family and my people.
The smaller islands close to the volcano took so much damage: the waves swept right over them, and we are hearing now from people there who survived by climbing the coconut trees. The government have come in and evacuated people already because it’s complete decimation: there’s nothing left on some of these islands.
At the moment, the death toll is still three, which we’re thankful for, but we know, as the Tongan Navy gets through to all the smaller islands, there’s a possibility that figure will rise: so many people in the Ha’apei islands have sustained injuries trying to escape from the Tsunami.
Agriculture is the main way to survive, and knowing the effect the ash fall has had on the land is going be really important, it will determine how long it’s going take completely to recover.
Initial reports said that the ash fall has affected all of the crops within Tonga this year. People were being told not to go near them, not to touch them.
But the great thing about the Tongan community is that there’s a lot of support coming in for overseas. There are more Tongans outside the country than those who live on the islands, and everybody’s mobilized to make sure our families have everything they need. They’ll make it through this. It’s just going to take a really long time for them to recover.”