Tonga after the volcanic eruption: Life is slowly returning

Status: 01/22/2022 11:52 a.m

A volcanic eruption temporarily cut off the island state of Tonga completely from the outside world. Now the first relief supplies are arriving, phones are working again – and stories from survivors are multiplying.

Lena Bodewein
ARD-Studio Singapore

“Eight times I sank underwater and I struggled for air. The sea swirled and pulled me under the water. The eighth time I thought: One more time and then it’s over because I could only stay above the water with my arms”, reports Lisala Folau from the day when the volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai broke out. “I said to myself: If I get up again and then can’t do it anymore, then that’s it.”

Folau used to be a carpenter and can hardly move his legs due to a physical disability. When the volcano erupted near Tonga, the ensuing tsunami tore the 57-year-old from his home island of Atata into the sea.

“I was the hope that came true for everyone”

“The ninth time I sank under the water and got up – and was able to grab a large piece of wood. And so I persevered. I heard my son calling me from shore – but I didn’t answer. I didn’t want him to swim out and trying to save me,” reports Folau. The waves would have spun him back and forth as he clung to the piece of wood.

For 24 hours, through the night and into the following evening, Folau drifted and swam, landing twice at small uninhabited islands and finally reaching the main island of Tongatapu, where he dragged himself ashore and across a strait until he found help. “I was the hope that came true for everyone,” says the tsunami survivor, praising God for his salvation.

First telephone lines are working again

This and other news is breaking now, a week after the gigantic volcanic eruption in the Pacific. It destroyed all communication lines, and nothing was heard from the South Sea Kingdom for days. The phone company was able to fix at least some of the lines by now.

“It was very emotional. I was definitely very moved when the team called me – because it meant that we had made a breakthrough, says Anthony Seuseu, head of telecommunications company Digicel Tonga. And that was so important because we knew “that the families had not reached their loved ones in Tonga for four days. And so we were desperate to restore lines, to Tonga and to the rest of the world.”

But the underwater cable for the Internet connection is damaged in two places. The ship needed for repairs is currently near Papua New Guinea, some 4,000 kilometers away. How long a repair will take is difficult to say. “If it were a smooth cut without another volcano bubbling away, then it would take until mid-February. At best,” said Seuseu. Entrepreneur Elon Musk offered via Twitter to send Internet terminals from his Starlink satellite network.

Offers of help from all over the world

Meanwhile, more help has arrived from abroad, a second New Zealand Navy ship with water and desalination plants on board. Drinking water is the most important thing, explains Tonga’s Trade Minister Tatafu Toma Moeaki in a telephone interview with Chinese media.

“A big problem is the dust from the volcano. The government is warning people to stay indoors, wear good masks and not waste water,” Moeaki said. Because it looks like the water won’t be there anytime soon.”

Australia, New Zealand, China, Britain, the United Nations, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and others have also sent aid. But all relief supplies must be handed over without contact so that foreign aid workers do not bring the corona virus to Tonga. So far, the country is free of Covid-19 with the exception of a single infection. An Australian relief flight was forced to turn back after a crew member on board tested positive for the virus

UN: Long-term help needed

The UN fears that Tonga will be dependent on aid supplies for a long time. A fifth of the population was already living below the poverty line before the volcanic eruption, and the tsunami and volcanic ash fall have badly affected many arable land, livestock and fisheries, according to a World Food Program spokesman.

With tourism, another source of income is initially lost. “The tourist resorts on the main island, about four, all lined up on the west coast – they’ve all disappeared,” says the trade minister. But, says a Tongan MP, his people are very resilient. Like the carpenter Lisala Folau with his story of hope and survival.

Tsunami survivors and other wonders a week after volcanic eruption

Lena Bodewein, ARD Singapore, 22.1.2022 10:18 a.m

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