Emergency Relief Report for Tonga (Week 1)

Week 1 Report from Rebelle (Xavier & Amanda)

Recent report submitted by Xavier & Amanda Zeitoun of the Sea Mercy FHCC Rebelle

As we approach Lifuka Island of the Ha'apai Group, we cannot help notice that the stretched shoreline looks different from when we left it last year. The countless coconut trees that bordered the beach so regularly before now look like the sticks of a Mikado game. It is 17:00 on Friday, as we anchor not far from the entrance of Pangai. The weather is peaceful and calm. We're the only boat here. But as we get ready to lower the dinghy to go ashore, the grey silhouette of a Tongan patrol boat comes closer. We think first of a custom boat but soon start to see a few Tongan marine sailors aboard along with a few Red Cross personal. Once at dock, we're told the patrol boat is carrying the wife of the ex-king of Tonga who passed away 3 years ago. She is now the president of the Red Cross of Tonga and arrived in Pangai at the same time as we did with a few members of the Red Cross to assess the situation and provide help and food to the disabled people of Pangai. Although we had hoped to meet with her, she is surrounded by staff; and quickly hops in the car of the Governor of Ha'apai who is waiting by the bridge.

We make contact with Dr Tevita. He comes to greet us just a few minutes later after our call, also to load a few bunch of giant taro brought in the patrol boat from Nukulalofa. Apparently his duties are much diversified for the situation. He helps us arrange and facilitate the customs and immigration formalities for the next morning. We also plan two trucks to unload the load of Fijian medicine in the morning then decide to take a little stroll into Pangai before going back for a good night rest to the boat. The crossing to Fiji was only a few days long but tense as we watched for the many thunderstorms flashing far away in all directions. We know that without the financial support of Lani & Earl Hagaman of the Scenic Hotels group that our ability to stay here to help would be short lived.

As we take a few steps in the small city of Pangai that we knew from the few days we spent here last year, we get stunned. We can hardly recognize the market place. The four old beautiful trees by the harbors are half destroyed. The market has no roof. The small gas station a little further down is finishing rebuilding. The wrecks of several buildings and a few broken boats lifted by the surge still lie there. No doubt something brutal has happened. It sure is no total devastation but it is shocking and sad. We pass in front of several large tents of the Red Cross and UNICEF although most people have decided to return to their home even if out of shape. We meet Suma, the nephew of the only casualty of the cyclone, an elderly lady too sick to make it through the ordeal. There was luck in the misery. One man got part of his foot severed in a house when a piece of glass blew straight down his leg. The renowned Tongan smile remains but we can feel it's been seriously challenged. We take a few pictures but quickly feel embarrassed of using the camera during a time of misery and harshness.

We decide to go to the Mariner's Cafe. Luckily it did not suffer too badly. We talk there with Magda who tells us about her experience on Saturday January 11 when Ian hit Pangai at 11:00 in the morning until 7:00pm. Ian went straight through Pangai, at category 5. They are rare to that intensity and the only good aspect is that it was fast. But it relentlessly pounded the center group of Ha'apai with more than 170 mph winds except for the couple of hours where everything stops and the eye of the cyclone passes above, giving the people a false sense of relief before the winds lash back again more furiously. Many people without a roof used the short calm to reach a neighbor's house for protection. Kids were terrorized the most by the event, a few mothers tell us. One man recounts how he tried to put his arm outside at one point when the wind seemed down but he said the rain was so strong he could not sustain the pain on the skin from the strength of the rainfall.

Magda showed us some pictures of the next day after the storm. Apparently emergency crews were dispatched quickly and by the next Monday, removal of most of the debris in the streets, the palm tree leaves, the tree stumps lying here and there with fewer dead animals, were removed or at least pushed away. In the next days, some electrical was re-established. Recovery was swift in the next days but from what we're told, the pace slowed down a little.

We go back to the boat to get a good night sleep after the 5 days of a tense crossing. The next day we go ashore with the dinghy to pick up four officers to make the entry formality: health, experience, immigration and custom. After a bit of paperwork and the telling of the stories from these officers, we decide to bring the boat inside the harbor of Pangai for customs formalities and the handover of the medicines to Dr Tevita. He is waiting for us with two trucks and a handful of locals who came to help. The unloading goes swift under 90º weather. After which we set a meeting with Dr Tevita for the coming Monday and take the only mooring of the small harbor as the winds are expected to rise later that day. The harbor is very exposed and rudimentary for any boat that comes by and James, the designated harbormaster, lost his VHF in the storm.

Already by Sunday as we still catch back, the Meteo announces a new low forming soon East of Fiji with potential for a storm with a stop over Tonga in the coming week. We have a few days but start planning. We attend the meeting on Monday at the hospital south of town. In addition, we can see the winds and rain did not spare the only medical facilities of Ha'apai. Roof caved in at many sections, ceiling collapsed, and loss of goods. We're shocked to find out Dr Tevita was seeing patients that infamous day. Indeed, Pangai does not have much of a warning system in place. In fact, the doctor asked me to give him a few web links about the weather when I indicated to him that a storm may be approaching next week.

Dr Tevita is the only doctor on the island during and following the aftermath. Tongatapu sent one doctor for a few days but perhaps judged it was sufficient for the need. The doctor has a staff of about 10 nurses but only in the city of Pangai. He told us that anyone affected in the nearby islands must travel on their own to Pangai to receive treatment. But, he says, most are afraid of traveling in precarious boats that far, especially after what they experienced (difficult to blame them). During the meeting, we were told that the main islands affected were the Northern Group which Ha'apai oversees. (there are 3 group in Ha'apai: the Southern Group, with a nurse/facility in Nomuka, the Center Group with Ha'feva and the Northern with Pangai).

We're told that the environmental health conditions are most in need of supervision and we offer to Dr Tevita to carry a crew of 4 to 5 environmental personal to provide the necessary assistance as they do have the people but not the boat to carry them.

"Mission Possible" with Sea Mercy's Rebelle

The following islands of the Northern Group in question are:

Uhia Island: 2 villages, Uhia (415 people - 41 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed), Felemea (137 people - 29 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed)

Mo'hunga'one: 1 island and village with 92 people (26 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed)

Ha'ano Island: 4 villages, Muitoa (37 people - 35 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed), Ha'aho (115 people - 37 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed), Pukatola (91 people - 27 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed), Fokakai (176 people - 49 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed)

Lafonga: 1 village (120 people - 15 buildings/houses damaged and/or destroyed)

This is the latest census of the Health Ministry here. A total of 4 islands and 8 villages are on the route of this upcoming mission that should last 1 to 2 weeks, maybe more. During the expedition, mostly environmental factors: check the water conditions, sanitary conditions, treatments for mosquito, support in handling the watermakers and generators handed to the people there who do not have much experience with them. Many have complained of the water quality and subsequent issues. Rebelle will be loaded with a few boxes of sanitary kits for the locals and some of the medicines.

No doubt that medical help will be needed for some of the hundreds living there. Dr Tevita has placed a request to have a nurse or doctor on board with us. There is no doubt that Sea Mercy is needed, but of course, as we often felt in the remote islands, the people there often are in need… but they won't ask. Surely, volunteers like the ones who came last year would put a lot of smiles on the faces of the people here.

As Dr Tevita needs a few days preparing the trip, we unfortunately have to go hide in Neiafu as the Meteo appears serious about the formation of another storm (cyclone) with Tonga in its path, likely Ha'apai. Meanwhile I will stay in touch with Dr Tevita keeping him informed of the latest weather forecast and our plans to start back to Pangai next week to meet the remote islands needs as we are able.

The health ministry staff, the people of Tonga, Xavier & Amanda, and Sea Mercy would like to thank those that have given of their time and talents to help this emergency relief mission. If you would like to help support Sea Mercy's efforts in Tonga, please contact us by phone or email.
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