The Catholic Agency for Justice, Peace and Development

Responding to Cyclone Gita

Photo: Mark Micthell

A blog by Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand's Mark Mitchell on 04 March 2018 

It’s now three weeks since the most powerful cyclone in 60 years passed over the islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua in the Kingdom of Tonga leaving many homeless and without water or power. Cyclone Gita had already left many people in Samoa with the a major clean up operation after floods inundated homes and businesses and knocked out power and communication lines. By the time Gita reached Tonga it was reported as being a category 5 cyclone with extremely destructive power.

However, a lot has been achieved since then. Power is largely restored after an intensive round-the-clock operation by Tonga Power Co. Much of the debris has also been taken away with the assistance of His Majesty’s Armed Forces. Staff at National Emergency Management Office (NEMO) have been working late into the night to prepare the government’s strategy for response and recovery, as well as work with the various NGOs operating in country to distribute emergency supplies. Across the country, many communities are making whatever repairs they can to the nearly two and a half thousand houses that were damaged or destroyed.Amelia Ma'afu from Caritas Australia stands with emergency supplies

Amelia Ma’afu (pictured to the right), Acting Director of Caritas Tonga, is convinced that the prepositioned supplies kept by Caritas and other organisations ensured a quick response. “We have been able to very quickly mobilise to distribute urgently needed supplies. So many people lost their homes and everything inside was damaged or blown away. Because we already had things like tarpaulins, water containers and hygiene kits in store ready for an emergency we were able to get these out to the those most in need in a short time.”

One of the families that received a Caritas tarpaulin was Palasa and Vaea Lolesio and their four children (featured image). Their house, in Fo’ui village, was almost completely raised to the ground by the storm. Only the kitchen and a small bedroom on the side of the house still has walls standing. The rest of the walls were smashed and lay scattered around along with the roofing iron which was buckled and bent by the force of the wind as it peeled it away from the old roof structure. A mattress, that was sodden now leans against a wall in an attempt to dry it out. Collected crockery and a few household treasures that have been rescued and cleaned, are stored on the kitchen table.

Vaea, who works as an occasional building labourer, was able to rescue some of the roofing iron from the where the wind had blown it, and straighten it out to use over the area they now sleep in. In spite of his efforts though, the roof still leaks through old nail holes and splits in the iron. The tarpaulin he received from Caritas helps to ensure that rain doesn’t get in while they sleep although its a small space for a family to live in. Even so, Anna (13) and the older children seem remarkably resilient and stoic in the face of the destruction they see around. They have been able to return to school and are doing what they can to help out around the house.

Vaea, with the help of his brother, is committed to rebuilding the house but can’t afford the materials that are required. He says he has the skills necessary and will start the rebuild as soon as he can.

Caritas is committed to working with affected communities to provide training and repair kits in a joint programme with Habitat for Humanity. The programme will ensure that communities have the skills necessary to rebuild. Ma’afu says “With Habitat, we are developing a programme that promotes ‘building back safer’. It encourages the use of cyclone strapping and bracing and introduces techniques that will increase the resilience of the home to future storms and earthquakes” “The homeowner will then be able to use these skills as they rebuild their homes with kit provided by [Caritas and Habitat for Humanity], although we will continue to supervise and support during the repair process”.

Ma’afu is thinking ahead. She is aware that the cyclone season is not over yet. But “the warehouse is now empty and we need to replenish as quickly as possible to be ready for the next emergency whenever that comes.”



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