Oxfam New Zealand has sent an emergency response team to Tonga today and is gearing up its aid efforts following reports of complete destruction left by Cyclone Ian to the northern islands of Ha’apai.
Matelita Blake-Hour, from Oxfam’s partner organisation in Tonga, The Tongan National Youth Congress (TNYC), is in Ha’apai as part of the Tongan Government’s assessment team, surveying the damage to determine the most urgent needs.
“I’ve never seen anything so fierce and so scary in my life,” said Blake-Hour today. “In some areas I can see the path the cyclone cut through the trees, it’s complete destruction - every house has been destroyed and every family affected, but then out of the path of the cyclone some trees and buildings are still standing.
Ms Blake-Hour said she thinks there is about 90% destruction to the low-lying, outer islands of Foa, Ha’ano and Mo’unga’one, and about 80% to Pangai, the capital of Ha’apai.
“Houses, trees, even plants are destroyed. There’s no fruit, no crops, or anything. Some houses have been lifted up and put down somewhere else.
“Even the road from Pangai to the airport, the sea has picked it up and put it on the other side. Even the strong church building – its roof has been lifted off.
“I have seen cyclones before, many times, but nothing like this. People are homeless and living in evacuation centres, they’ve lost everything. It is good when they see us, they calm down, they know we will help.”
Oxfam sent two specialists to Tonga today and a third will follow tomorrow to help with water, sanitation, livelihoods and food.
Carlos Calderon, Pacific Humanitarian Manager of Oxfam New Zealand, will join the team in Tonga tomorrow. He said: “We will help with clean water and re-establishing crops which will give people food to eat, but also to sell so they can support themselves, recover markets and re-build their lives. For people who get their incomes from the land, this is essential. We want to help them return to normality as soon as possible.”
Ms Blake-Hour said that clean water for drinking and sanitation was a real concern as many people on the islands rely on rooftop rainwater catchment systems for drinking water, and wells for washing and cleaning water. Although water was stored prior to the cyclone in large tanks, most of it is now undrinkable.
“With all the roofs off houses there is no way for people to get clean water and most of the wells and water tanks have turned brown and taste salty from the sea. Dirt has got in and we are telling people not to drink it because it will make them sick,” she said.
Oxfam programmes in Ha’apai damaged
Oxfam's local partner organisation the Tongan National Youth Congress (TNYC), has had programmes in Ha’apai for almost two years, including three organic coconut oil processing sites that provide a much-needed way for local farmers to earn a living exporting coconut oil to America.
Ms Blake-Hour has come across two out of three sites in her assessments with the Tongan government, both of which were found damaged.
“At one site the roof is torn off, at another the dryer is destroyed and all of the coconuts have been ripped from the trees. We need to collect the coconuts quickly and process them or we will lose a lot of oil, which means no way for people who have lost everything to make money and rebuild their lives.”