Saturday, March 29, 2014

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.

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