Rev Siotame Paletu’a thought the worst was over when Cyclone Ian’s Tongan rampage seemed to come to an end after a couple of hours on 11 January. But, as quickly as the winds died down they sprung up again. Rev Paletu’a found himself in the midst of one of the most terrifying incidents of his life.
As a Tongan, Mr Paletu’a – who was visiting his homeland with his wife Elizabeth when the storm struck – is no stranger to cyclonic activity. But he said this one was different and more destructive.
“I was there in 1992 when Cyclone Isaac struck but that was a category four and this was a category five,” Mr Paletu’a said.
“The winds went for about two hours but then stopped and we went outside to begin cleaning up.
“Then the storm started again.”
The worst-affected areas were in the northern part of the Ha’apai group of islands, where more than 600 buildings were completely destroyed along with essential food crops and fishing equipment.
“It was just like a bomb had been dropped on the island,” the Cheltenham-Mentone minister said of the damage caused in the Ha’apai islands.
“About 80 per cent of the buildings were damaged. Corrugated iron was just folded, blown away and wrapped around trees.
“Most people lost everything.”
Rev Paletu’a said while residents were warned in advance of the approaching cyclone, the ferocity of the winds caught most off guard.
“We were being told it was going to be a category two then two days later we were told a three and then four.”
UnitingWorld has launched an appeal to support its partner church, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (FWCT), as it organises relief efforts to support affected communities.
While the immediate need of food and clothing is being met within the country through the generosity of unaffected communities and extended family, the rebuilding of infrastructure and re-establishment of livelihoods and local food supplies will take longer and require significant funding.
The General Secretary of the FWCT, Rev Dr Tevita Havea, said people remained in good spirits despite the devastation.
“The Ha’apai people are so used to these natural tragedies that they could look above the devastations and loss to have a smile about life in the midst of difficulties.
“A laugh does not mean that their pain has disappeared; it means that people still find some element of happiness in the midst of chaos,” he said.
Dr Havea, who has visited communities affected by the cyclone, conveyed his appreciation for expressions of concern and prayer for the people of Ha’apai.
“I have relayed your (UnitingWorld’s) prayers and concerns to our people at Ha’apai. They are appreciative of your concerns and willingness to partner with them during this time of need.”
Those wishing to support the appeal can visit www.unitingworld.org.au/cyclone-ian-tonga/ or call UnitingWorld on 1800 998 122.
By Nigel Tapp