The Catholic Agency for Justice, Peace and Development

Life in Tonga - The lasting effects of Cyclone Gita

Media Image Credits: 
Mark Mitchell
Event date: 
08 Sep 2018

When storms pass over the island of Tongatapu, Tonga there are no areas that are particularly protected, no big hills that might offer shelter from the prevailing wind.

The whole island is affected. Such was the case when Cyclone Gita struck in February this year. No deaths were attributed to the cyclone, however assessments indicated that over 2,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. Water sources were contaminated or cut and although Tongans are well used to cyclones, the damage wreaked by the category 4 cyclone had lasting psychological impacts as well as economic.

The low-lying village of Popua is particularly vulnerable to the wind and storm surges. Even a high tide can flow in to the village flooding homes and latrines. The inhabitants are among the poorest on the island. Officially, most of the residents in Popua are squatting on government land and few of the houses have permission to be built. Infrastructure is limited, rain water is collected for drinking and toilets are communal long drops. Most of the residents don’t have the funds to buy land or build a permanent structure.

Such is the case for Kato Kakala Fangauiha. She and her husband, Penola, built their house on stilts over a tidal inlet, a single room with space for Kato, Penola and their three young children to sleep. Access is via a short gangplank to cross over the mud and the house is high enough so as to not get flooded but has not been strong enough to withstand strong cyclonic winds. At the height of the storm, Kato remembers how the roof was ripped from the structure with a frightening crash exposing the family and their household possessions to the rain. Kato and the children relocated to her Mother-in-law's house while Penola stayed behind to make whatever repairs he could with salvaged material.

Penola is a plumber, but Kato says he makes more money picking oranges in Australia on to the seasonal workers scheme which has been doing for the last four years. Unfortunately, this takes him a away from the family for six months of the year which is hard on Kato and the children. However, with the savings from this work they had been able to purchase a solar panel to provide light in the evenings. A small nod at relative luxury in their home. Unfortunately, this too was smashed in the storm.

Immediately following the cyclone, Caritas Tonga began distribution of prepositioned emergency supplies - stocks of tarpaulins, blankets, jerrycans and kitchen sets, as well as hygiene kits. The establishment of these stocks have literally saved lives according to local Caritas Director - Amelia Ma’afu who explains that Tonga is ranked as the second most disaster risk nation in the world. “Having stocks in place enabled us to respond to the most vulnerable straight after the cyclone passed. Families had lost everything and were exposed. Even so, by the time the Caritas teams arrived they were recovering what wind-blown materials they could to make urgent repairs.”

Kato agreed that the tarpaulin that she received was essential in enabling her and her husband to make emergency repairs to her house. In the short term, it kept the house dry but was clearly not a long-term solution.
To assist with the recovery, Caritas partnered with Habitat for Humanity, drawing on their technical experience in shelter construction. With support from the New Zealand public donations and Government funding, Caritas and Habitat staff trained local builders in “build back safer” techniques. Using these approaches the builders are able to make house repairs that make existing houses more resilient to future cyclones.

The donations and funding is enabling Caritas and Habitat to purchase roofing iron and timber and other necessary materials to make repairs to over 300 houses like Kato’s. The materials are procured locally, securing jobs and putting money in to the local economy.

Kato’s husband has now returned to Australia for six months and is sending remittances home. Life is still hard for Kato but she has been able to buy a small solar lamp. She hopes that next time her husband returns they will be able to buy a larger solar panel to replace the one that was damaged.

Most of all, she says, her family is safe.

So far, the partnership has made lasting repairs to 256 houses and additional damaged houses have been identified. It is hoped that it may be possible to include other families in the repair programme. Projects such as the Caritas and Habitat For Humanity project promote build back safer approaches and establish water tanks to ensure that the community is better protected from future cyclones.

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