In the morning of January 11, 2014, after an early warning from the Department of Meteorology and the National Disaster Management Office on the upcoming category 5 tropical cyclone Ian, power and radio transmission went off on the Island of Ha’apai, one of the most populated among the 150 islands of the Tongan archipelago in the South Pacific.
The Pacific Islands are inherently prone to hazards due to their geographic location and small size. Each year Pacific Island countries experience damage and loss caused by natural disasters estimated at an average $284 million, or 1.7% of regional GDP (World Bank 2013 ). In the coming decades, climate change is expected to make things worse through sea level rise and more intense cyclones.
During tropical cyclone Ian, the population was instructed to get away from lower elevation and coastal areas, and to get to shelter in churches. A few hours after the eye of the cyclone hit the coastlines of Lifuka and Foa islands, the scene was devastating. Thousands of houses were damaged , trees had fallen down and debris were everywhere. Once again, Tongan people had faced the force of nature, but this time with stronger intensity. One life was lost and the economic loss was estimated at $50 million which is about 11% of the country GDP. Communities on the six islands of Ha’apai were impacted.
After the government’s timely and efficient response to the emergency, the biggest challenge remains on transiting to long- term recovery and resilient reconstruction.
From the beginning of the recovery works, the Government of Tonga sought advice from international organizations and donors to ensure that policy for reconstruction is based on evidence, participatory, transparent and equitable.
As a risk data specialist, I joined two teams from the government in early April 2014 and headed to the Ha’apai Islands to assess damages on buildings and households. So that on April 4, here I am again in one of the small planes of Real Tonga, flying over the South Pacific Ocean. Destination: the Friendly Island (a nickname given to Ha’apai by Captain James Cook when his boat first landed on the small island 250 years ago). On my left is Sione Lolohea from the Statistics Department along with three of his colleagues. In the back seat is Ponapate Taunisila, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Education. I started to be a little nervous looking around the six seats going up and down on a bumpy travel that started with the rainy morning. But I have no choice—the only way to go from one island to another is either by plane or by boat.
The type of multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach applied to this technical assessment is something new for the country. It is a good example of engaging the affected communities, and forging a national coalition to recover from a disaster. The arrival of surveyors on the Ha’apai Islands revived hope among communities and assured them that steps were being taken for their recovery.
The ground surveys included the participation of teachers, which is not usual, but their presence gave assurance to communities and helped gather important data quickly. New technology was used—for example, the assessment teams used a hand-held device with integrated GPS allowing a faster and more efficient data collection. The affected local population was thankful for being able to provide information about their situation, especially on the remote islands. Many times, communities helped survey teams logistically providing transportation and food.
Currently, the data collected from the surveys is being analyzed to inform government actions on the ground. The immediate impact of the surveys is that they have helped forge a national coalition and a sense of responsibility toward the people of Ha’apai, from the national flight company (which enabled the teams’ travel, to the government, local communities, and NGOs including the Tongan Red Cross). The results are also being used in preparation of the upcoming recovery project  financed by the World Bank—which had already provided an immediate $1.27 million payout  through the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Insurance Pilot. The project will strengthen the resilience of Ha’apai communities by building hazard-proof houses for the most vulnerable and providing assistance to the community for self-recovery. The people of Ha’apai will be stronger in facing the next cyclones.
Coming back from the field, a vegetable seller in Tongatapu surprised me with: “Thank you for helping the people of Ha’apai”. That is the best part of my job. That type of reward from the community is priceless.