Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nuitoputapu and the 2009 tsunami – by Gary

In the early morning of September 30, 2009 residents of the tiny, low island of Nuitoputapu, were rocked by an earthquake.  Just minutes later this most northern outpost of the Kingdom of Tonga was inundated by three major tsunami waves, with the highest being estimated at 6m.  Inhabitants fled to higher ground as best they could while most of their houses were swept away, along with schools, churches, cars, water tanks and crucial infrastructure.  Miraculously of the island's eight hundred odd people only nine were killed, including two children.

To their credit the Tongan Government responded rapidly to the crisis, landing a plane the same afternoon, and a vessel soon after.  Assessing the situation international aid was requested. Just days later,operating under under a Pacific disaster coordination arrangement between France, New Zealand and Australia, emergency supplies and personnel were landed.  First priorities included temporary shelters (tents and marquees), food, water, sanitation and medical services.  These were all located within a temporary encampment established high on the islands central ridge.  Then the clean-up commenced, followed more slowly by reconstruction.

Many islanders stayed living in the safety of the temporary encampment for months, afraid of aftershocks and more waves.  Indeed considerable external pressure was applied to relocate the islands three main villages to higher ground; however land tenure issues provided significant roadblocks.  Slowly the majority of islanders returned to their traditional village sites around the lagoon edge, first to temporary housing, then to new houses as they were built.  Reconstruction funding and materials came from a wide variety of sources including the World Bank, the UN, the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Japan, the Red Cross, churches and private donors.

In our visit to the island 5 years after the tsunami, physical recovery was pretty much complete, although the memories of the dreadful day linger fresh when people start talking.  One woman recalled to us the terrible panic in her family when they realised their small boy was missing following the first wave, their frantic searching, and their relief when they found him alive and clinging to the roof of an almost entirely engulfed truck.  We are told that many now live in great fear of a recurrence and think of running for higher ground every time there is an earthquake or tremor (a common occurrence in Tonga).  They take little comfort from the knowledge that this has been the only tsunami in living memory.

Damage still manifests itself; wrecked cars in the bush, occasional derelict damaged houses – but there is surprisingly little.  The most obvious physical evidence of the event is the uniform age of almost everything relating to human occupation, the housing, offices, schools, churches, cars and even the bicycles.  There is little that is old.

Our visit to Nuitoputapu has been great – our impression is the island possesses a tight knit, cohesive community, much more like the Tonga I knew of 30 odd years ago.  Residents have a largely subsistence based economy supplemented by repatriated payments from extended family overseas and sales of copra.  Young people are still continuing to live here in the villages – which is wonderful to see.  The island's isolation from the rest of the nation ensures visitors are rare, there is no tourism apart from the occasional yachtee.  We were made to feel most welcome.

You can see the central high ridge where the temporary encampment was established.  The island's three villages are all located on the low, flat ground on the edge of the lagoon.

Wreckage of cars swept in the path of the tsunami are
 possibly the most evident physical reminders.

Physical damage and silting of the surrounding reef was severe but less obvious.  Folks here are bringing in pandanus that have been soaking in the lagoon (it makes the fibres more flexible and durable prior to being woven into mats).

An example of the type of temporary housing
that people moved into post tsunami.

The ubiquitous prefab kit houses that most Nuitoputapuns now live in.

A new school, communication infrastructure and church.

Signs, lots of them, now warn of the tsunami danger and the appropriate response.

While visiting we were treated to some extraordinary hospitality by residents' of the island and really enjoyed our visit.

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