On January 11, 2014, Cyclone Ian hit Tonga with gusts of up to 178 miles per hour. The storm was later downgraded from Category 5 – the most destructive level – to Category 4, with gusts of up to 155 mph. The powerful storm cut a streak of destruction, killing one person, and destroying most of the homes in some areas. It is estimated that over 80% of houses in the small island of Haapai, one of three major island groups that make up the Tonga island, have been totally swiped out. The Ha’apai islands are home to over 10,000 people, most of whom live on the devastated islands of Lifuka, where the person died. Cyclone Ian is touted to be the most powerful cyclone ever to hit the South Pacific island of Tonga.
Tonga is an archipelago of 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by more than 100,000 people. Its economy relies on fish exports, tourism and remittances from Tongan communities overseas, with about 40 percent of the population living in poverty.
In recent days, direr news and updates have reached the Tongan community here in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, many of whom are originally from the devastated island of Ha`apai. In the village of Pukotala, home to Rev. Saia Tu`itahi, pastor at Santa Ana UMV, only three remaining structures can be found. Church buildings belonging to The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, and the Tonga Church United, which could have served as temporary shelters, have also been destroyed. This is consistent through out the many islands that make up the Ha`apai group of island, as they are low lying islands with coastal reefs surrounding the small areas of land mass.
Hence, it is not surprising that many of the houses literally disappeared, as they were lifted up and thrown into the ocean. Takaua Tupou, wife of retired pastor Rev. Tofa Tupou, is in contact with her family in Koula, Ha`apai, commented, “Many people thought it was the end of the world, and that they would surely die.” Perhaps, what is most surprising is that there was only one fatality due to Cyclone Ian. Rev. Saia commented on the effect of this disaster in the island of Ha`apai, “The people of Ha`apai are accustomed to living in extreme poverty and challenges, however, this disaster is the worst in modern times, and it will take many years for these people who live in poverty to rebuild their lives.”
The Pacific Island United Methodist community is mobilizing to provide relief and support to victims of Cyclone Ian. UMCOR has responded in a variety of channels, including sending medical and school supplies, and offering a disaster relief grant. But relief work is ongoing, and in an effort to provide a united relief approach, UMC members are encouraged to use the UMCOR channel, by giving to the Advance #982450. Several of the Tongan United Methodist churches, including Santa Ana UMC, are organizing their own relief efforts in partnership with the larger Pacific Island community, and with UMCOR.
Rev. Dr. Tevita Havea, General Secretary of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, a member of the worldwide Methodist family, has reported that at least 26 church owned buildings (sanctuary, hall, parsonage) have been destroyed or damaged and will need rebuilding. In light of that, the Pacific Islanders National Caucus of United Methodists (PINCUM) have made arrangements with GBGM Advance to use existing Advance #00311A, Tonga Undesignated, belonging to the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga for donation that will go directly to FWCT for rebuilding of church facilities. More information can be found on www.umcmission.org/The-Advance, and donations should be clearly marked, “FWC Tonga building projects”.
Let us continue to keep the people of the island of Tonga in our prayers.
By Monalisa Tuitahi, Executive Director
Pacific Islander National Caucus of The United Methodist Church