Heather Stone reflects on the impact of Cyclone Gita in Tonga, after her recent visit.
My parents are officers and when I was nine years old we moved to Fiji for three years. I was familiar with cyclones, having lived through them. We lived in an area where there were a number of what were known as ‘Rotary houses’—because they had been built by Rotary after a hurricane. They were like little square boxes with four walls and hurricane shutters. They didn’t look like houses back home in New Zealand.
I’ve been to Tonga a couple of times and was always surprised to see that a lot of the houses looked more like New Zealand homes. I had my latest trip to Tonga scheduled well before Cyclone Gita to spend time with The Salvation Army’s Business Administrator. My seven-year-old son was saying, ‘Please Mummy don’t go’, because he’d seen all the footage on television. But I felt really strongly that I needed to go. I felt it was important for someone from New Zealand to be there—so the people knew they weren’t forgotten.
Having had the exposure to cyclones as a child in Fiji, I thought I knew what to expect after Cyclone Gita—but I had no idea of the level of devastation. I expected to see all those ‘housey’ looking homes as usual, but where they once stood, was just a foundation. The houses had either been completely blown away, or their roofs completely gone. It was a very real illustration of the whole ‘firm foundation’ idea—what looked by appearance to be solid, wasn’t … it was just gone!
Brand new buildings, just completed and about to be opened, were absolutely decimated. Trees with corrugated iron wrapped around the branches, and concrete fences pushed over by the force of the winds. It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that where a home for a family of seven once stood, now just lay the concrete foundation.
I went with Tonga’s regional leaders Captains Sila & Malia Siufanga to three different places, taking them essential supplies like toilet paper, water, tinned corned beef, flour and sugar. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that we’d given them nothing really, in the big picture of everything they had lost.
People were living in Red Cross tents, but it was too dangerous to cook inside them. Sila dropped off a tarpaulin to a lady who had been widowed just a few weeks before the Cyclone, so she could cook under the shelter of a tarpaulin. That was what impacted me the most really: handing over stuff that will help meet an immediate need—and I guess you have to focus on that—but it’s so inadequate compared what they have lost.
Sila asked me to pray with three ladies we were visiting, and I had absolutely no words that could do justice to the situation. But they were all so grateful that no lives were lost, which is amazing, a miracle really. There are definitely positives to focus on.
It was really hard to leave Tonga and her people. I was going back to my reality but their reality just continues, it’s not going to suddenly change. I am so grateful for the opportunity to go and support The Salvation Army in Tonga, and am encouraged that the money raised through the Pacific Emergency Fund will help with the rebuilding of people’s lives in this beautiful nation that is part of our Territory.
by Heather Stone (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 7 April 2018, pp10-11 - You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.