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Monday, December 05, 2022

3 Months After Volcano Eruption, Tonga Slowly Rebuilds

WELLINGTON, New Zealand ( Associated Press) – Samantha Moala recalls she was bathing at her home in Tonga when she heard a gunshot so loud it hurt her ears.

As he and his family headed for their car to drive inland, ash darkened the sky. The world’s largest volcanic eruption in 30 years sent a tsunami across the globe, and the first waves swept across the road as Moala with her terrified husband and two sons rushed to airport security.

A volunteer with the Tonga Red Cross, 39-year-old Moala, was soon attending to cuts that had occurred while other people survived, and giving them psychological support. She said about 50 of them stayed at the airport for two days until it was clear for them to go back home.

“People were all shocked,” she said. “But I have to mingle with them, help them, reassure them. It’s a small island, and we got to know each other in two hours.”

Three months after the eruption, the rebuilding of Tonga is proceeding slowly, and the impact of the disaster has clearly come into focus. Last week, the prime minister handed over the keys to the first renovated house of 468 the government plans to rebuild across three islands as part of its recovery programme.

Some 3,000 people whose homes were destroyed or damaged initially took refuge in community halls or evacuation centers. Eighty percent of Tonga’s population was affected in one way or another.

In the first few weeks after the explosion, Moala helped by setting up tents and tarpaulins and then cooking food for other volunteers.

It took five weeks for Tonga to restore its Internet connection to the rest of the world after a tsunami broke a vital fiber-optic cable. This delayed some families from abroad being able to send financial help to their loved ones.

Three people in Tonga were killed by the tsunami and a quarter were killed by the authorities as related trauma. The boom of sound from the explosion was so strong that it could be heard in Alaska and a mushroom plume of ash set a record 58 kilometers (36 mi) in the sky.

The World Bank estimates the total bill of damages to be around $90 million. In the small island nation of 105,000 people, this equates to over 18% of GDP.

The bank noted that many coastal tourism businesses – which bring significant foreign revenue to Tonga – were particularly hard hit, with tourist cabins and ferries destroyed. The agricultural industry also suffered, crops were destroyed and reef fisheries were damaged.

ANZ Bank says Tonga’s GDP is expected to shrink by 7.4% this year, as it was expected to grow by 3.7% before the volcano erupted.

The international community is helping, Tonga has been able to receive $8 million from the World Bank and $10 million from the Asian Development Bank, as well as receiving aid from several places, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the European Union. America and China.

But progress has been hampered by the country’s first outbreak of COVID-19, possibly brought in by foreign military personnel who rushed to shut off supplies to clear the ashes. The outbreak prompted a series of lockdowns, and the country remains in a state of emergency.

Moala is among more than 8,500 Tongans who have caught the coronavirus since it spread through the islands. Eleven people have died so far. Moala said the outbreak has affected several businesses, including her husband’s work as a tattoo artist.

But as the outbreak progresses and reconstruction proceeds, the familiar rhythm of the islands is returning for many.

Among those most affected are 62 people living on Mango Island and about 100 others on Atata Island who may never be able to return home.

The islands are located very close to the Hunga Tonga Hunga Haapai volcano, and the villages were wiped out. The residents have now been offered land by the King of Tonga to relocate to one of Tonga’s two main islands.

Tsyon Toumoflau, general secretary of the Tonga Red Cross Society, said there was much work to be done to relocate residents.

He said that supplies to people on other remote islands are also coming at a slow pace. Home fiber-optic cables are also damaged after many of them remain without Internet access and will likely not be repaired for months.

“Three months later, people are back to normal,” Taumoflau said. “But we can see that they still need psychological and social support for those who were really affected, especially those who had to relocate.”

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