Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cyclone Ian Aftermath...

Looking toward the cockpit on our very small plane to Ha'apai
Tuesday, February 4, Garth and I flew to Ha'apai, to see how things were going in the wake of Cyclone Ian. We flew up and back in one day, so our tour of Lifuka and Foa was quick. Pres. Steven Fehoko, a counselor in the mission presidency, had arrived in Ha'apai within days of the cyclone to help coordinate the clean up between the missionaries and bishops. What an amazing man he is. He is a master wood carver by trade.

He met us at the airport, and we got to briefly visit with Elders Montgomery and Ika (zone leaders in Ha'apai) as they headed to Tongatapu to attend the monthly Mission Leadership Council.

In the few weeks Pres. Fehoko had been on Ha'apai he had organized the missionaries into three groups. They would coordinate with the bishops and prioritize what needed to be done. The mornings were spent out working – fixing roofs, clearing debris, rebuilding, cutting fallen trees – whatever was needed. By the time we arrived, he had moved them out into the bush so farmland could be cleared of debris and crops could be replanted. The mission had sent steel-toed boots, long pants and shirts for the missionaries to wear while working, and chain saws to help with clean up. Pres. Fehoko assigned two men from each ward to be in charge of using the chain saws – missionaries were NOT allowed to use the chain saws – Pres. Fehoko wanted to make sure limbs remained intact :) He held a 30-minute “_____” to teach the men how to use and properly care for the chain saws. Many thought they didn't need the training, but Pres. Fehoko was adamant – no training, no chain saw.

Garth supervising the pruning of fallen trees

Two missionaries helping remove fallen trees
No chain saws for missionaries - only machete's
What a tree looks like after it's been "trimmed"

Afternoons when the temperature was at its highest, the missionaries rested. As evening approached the missionaries would divide – some would go back out to work, and others would clean up, put on their missionary attire, and go out proselyting. Many who had been inactive prior to the cyclone were coming back to church, and many nonmembers desired to learn more about the church. The numbers of members is steadily increasing in Ha'apai. God sometimes has to bring us low to bring us back to him.

Missionaries returning in the afternoon from working in the bush
There is still a lot of clean up that needs to be done, and there are still people staying in the LDS chapels at
A woman staying in the Pangai chapel
 night while working on their property during the day, but those numbers are decreasing. The government is still very slow to relinquish any goods – choosing to store them rather than give them out. Who can understand the machinations of a government bureaucratic mind. But the church, as usual, is there helping out. Not only are local members in Vava'u and Tongatapu helping by sending fresh produce, water, and other needed goods, but the church has given $100,000 so far, to buy supplies and whatever else is needed to help aid the cleanup. They are also working to begin building homes for those whose homes were destroyed. These homes will be built for anyone who lost theirs to the cyclone, whether an LDS member or not.

Sleeping boy in the Pangai chapel

The cultural hall in the Pangai chapel - temporary home for many
A visitor inside one of the Red Cross tents

A temporary home (tent) set up next to a home undergoing roof repairs

Downtown Pangai - tents donated by the Red Cross - they were very, very hot inside

When not working in the bush, a missionary is giving a haircut

Firefighters helping with cleanup

Students attending Ha'apai High School cleaning up the school grounds before school can start

Cleanup at Ha'apai High School

Missionary laundry hanging to dry in the cultural hall

Laundry hanging out to dry in the tennis court of the chapel

Laundry hanging to dry on the fence of the church grounds

Missionaries taking a break during the heat of the day

Beginning to rebuild

An elementary school - papers out drying on the lawn

Sima vai (water tanks) collecting rain water at one of the chapels

Faleloa - one of the hardest hit villages

Downed telephone lines and electrical lines - a common site

Minor damage to one of the LDS chapels - a door got blown off and was replaced - pink instead of blue :)

Cyclone Ian

Saturday, January 11, Cyclone Ian struck the Ha'apai island group of Tonga, with gusts reaching 178 mph. Watch on the cyclone began January 2, when it was categorized as a class 2 cyclone. It moved very slowly, was eventually upgraded to category 4, then category 5 before smashing into Ha'apai, with the eye of the storm passing directly over the main islands of Lifuka and Foa. It was estimated between 75 and 95% of all buildings were demolished among the 17 populated islands in the 51-island Ha'apai group. One life was lost due to injuries received from flying debris.

The cyclone passed by the Niuas and Vava'u causing some high wind gusts and some rain before stomping on Ha'apai, then passing by Tongatapu in the middle of the night with very little notice. I stayed up until after 3:00 a.m. waiting for the cyclone to hit. There was some wind and some rain....much, much lighter than other storms we've experienced thus far. I watched the wind change the direction the palm fronds were blowing, so I knew the eye of the storm had passed us by....and then I went to sleep. The cyclone was a big nonevent on Tongatapu.

By Monday the 14 stakes on Tongatapu began gathering clothing, tents, food, and other goods to send to the people of Ha'apai. They began collecting supplies at 10:00, and thought they would have everything

loaded on the ferry by noon. Truck load after truck load of goods began showing up at the ferry terminal. The line of trucks waiting to offload their supplies grew until it extended down the street. Drivers waited hours in line before they could unload their goods. Flour, sugar, vegetables, fruit, tents, tarps, clothing, saws, axes. The poorest of the poor gathered what extra they had and added it to the growing load. One lady, who only had a few dresses in her wardrobe, figured she really only needed one. She gave nearly her entire wardrobe to those who literally had nothing. Shortly after midnight the last or the trucks emptied its load. The ferry was full to overfilling. The hold was full, the walkways were full, every spare space on the ferry was full. Sister Webb, a humanitarian missionary who helped with the cyclone relief, said she wept the entire day.

By Tuesday morning the supplies were in Ha'apai and being unloaded. It was expected that the government would divide the goods. But, there were those who had their doubts that the people of Ha'apai would actually get said goods if the government became involved. So, a wise mission president (President Tupou) and area authority (Elder Tukuafu) suggested that the stake president in Ha'apai divide everything into equal amounts among the villages, and that the bishop and government representative of each village would then pass out the goods to ALL the people who resided in their village, regardless of religion. These supplies were the only supplies distributed among the people of Ha'apai until three weeks after the cyclone. Anything the government received they stockpiled in buildings, some of it going bad, until they finally got around to getting it to the people.

Sister Meyers, Sister Webb, Elder Webb
Tuesday Pres. Tupou, Elder Tukuafu, and Howard Niu (head of the service center in Liahona) chartered a plane to Ha'apai. Communications were still down, so they took a satellite phone with them. All missionaries had been accounted for and were helping with the clean up. While most of the other churches had sustained major damage – many of them losing entire roofs – 

the LDS churches and Mqs (missionary quarters) sustained minimal damage. 

LDS Church in background - empty foundation in foreground

MQ - Missionary Quarters
A very small section of a roof on one chapel had been lost, and a few doors had blown off. And most of the roof of the home the Va'enuku's lived in (a senior missionary couple) had blown off and they had to seek refuge in the service center. That was it. Residents all over Ha'apai ran to the LDS churches as the cyclone got near. And many of those who spent the first half of the cyclone NOT in an LDS church, ran to our churches during the lull of the storm when the eye passed over, because they knew the only safe places on the islands were the LDS churches.
One of the zone leaders, Elder Montgomery, shared with us a video he made during the first part of the cyclone. He and his companion had come to the main town of Pangai on the island of Lifuku to make sure the missionaries there were okay, and were unable to to get back to their village before the cyclone hit. So, they weathered the first part of the storm in the chapel in Pangai. His video shows palms bending nearly to the ground, debris flying, buildings being blown apart. Next to the church was a small Chinese store that had been completely demolished. During the lull in the storm looters began taking cans of food that was still within the vicinity of the store. Elder Montgomery and Elder Ika (the zone leaders in Ha'apai) ran out to help the Chinese owners pick up what they could to keep the looters from stealing it, and tossed everything into the back of the owner's van. Then the back side of the storm hit. They were barely able to make it into the van. Wind and debris pummeled the van. They were able to drive a short distance to a more secure location where they waited out the storm. Elder Montgomery said the building was small, dark, and they were unable to see anything. They could only hear the wind as it howled past them, and debris as it smashed into the building.

Cyclones are a way of life here. The people of Ha'apai are picking up and moving on. They are a strong people. The Lord blessed them and looked out for them. It is amazing to think that only one person lost their life. And there were no serious injuries. It is truly a miracle.

Here are some pictures two weeks after the cyclone hit.