When ‘Eleni Via, 67, lived on Atatā Island, her family could live off the land and the sea, surviving on crops planted in their garden and seafood fresh from the ocean.
But life has changed dramatically in the past year. Now they struggle in a new home, trying to cultivate a land that is not as fertile as it should be. For the first time in her life, Via has to think about ways to pay the water and electricity bills while making ends meet. On Atatā, they could depend on fishing to meet their basic needs and earn an income. In her new home on the country’s main island, Tongatapu, she wakes up every day wondering how she will provide for her family.
Like many Tongans, Via’s life was turned upside down on January 15, 2022 when Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted. Satellite images showing the incredible magnitude of the eruption were broadcast around the world, but when the eyes of the world turned to Tonga, the land disappeared. Due to damage to the submarine cable that powers Tonga’s internet and much of its communications infrastructure, the magnitude of the disaster was unknown for days.
When the government was finally able to issue a statement, the news was devastating: the eruption had triggered a tsunami that swept a number of the country’s islands. 84% of Tonga’s population was affected by the tsunami or the volcano’s ash.
Residents who had lost their homes were moved to the main island of Tongatapu. The government spoke of an ‘unprecedented disaster’. The World Bank estimated the cost at US$90.4 million, equivalent to 18.5% of Tonga’s GDP. Most of these costs come from the relocation and reconstruction of tsunami-affected villages.
Atatā was one of the hardest hit. The New Zealand Defense Force described the damage to the island as “catastrophic” and a UN assessment found dozens of buildings damaged while the entire island was covered in ash.
A year later, Via, with her husband, Ma’uhe’ofa Via, and granddaughter, Tu’aloa, have finally left the home of the family they had been staying in since the tsunami and moved to a settlement with new houses. in the village of Masilamea on Tongatapu.
“We are very happy to have settled here. Our home on the island has been destroyed. We are thankful for that [what] we got … for free,” says Via.
The house has a bedroom, a bathroom and toilet, a porch where all the food is done and cooked outside on a fire. They are short on cutlery and plates. Via longs for a kitchen to make food and a place for storage.
Housing remains a problem in parts of the country, after many homes were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami.
On the other side of the island, in the village of Patangata, lives 61-year-old Mosese Sikulu Mafi, whose family lives opposite the sea and witnessed the devastation of the tsunami.
Despite extensive damage, only six new homes have been built in his community. The government promised ten, but even that will not be enough, according to Mafi.
“At the moment there are many houses that need to be renovated. The problem is that there is no equal distribution and the surveys that are being done do not reflect the reality of living conditions.”
To protect the people against a new tsunami, he proposes to build the foreshore higher and to provide another emergency exit.
“At the moment the only way out of Patangata is the road next to the ocean and we hope to have a side road that would take us directly inland in case of future tsunami emergencies.”
However, Mafi remains grateful to him – his family still has the ocean at their disposal, which produces fish and seafood that they sell on the roadside. And despite the devastation, none of his community died in the tsunami.
“I’m just thankful it happened during the day. If it happened at night, a lot of kids would have died,” he says.
“We lost everything. I don’t think anyone escaped the wrath of the tsunami.”
Few can escape his memories either. Mafi says the last time there was an earthquake, the national tsunami siren went off and everyone ran inland.
Many children are especially affected. Via’s granddaughter is only five, but lives in fear that another tsunami could happen at any moment.
“When there’s lightning and thunder, or when there’s strong wind and heavy rain, she turns to me: ‘Is there another tsunami coming?’ I tell her, ‘no. It’s just rain and strong wind.’”
Meanwhile, as Via puts it, “We trust in God again.”