Tonga: Tropical Cyclone Ian strikes tiny Pacific nation

23 January, 2014
Jan 2014, Ha’apai, Tonga: Severe Tropical Cyclone Ian - the most powerful storm ever recorded in Tongan waters - made landfall on 11 January. The Category 5 system brought winds of over 200 km per hour and hit the island groups of Vava’u and Ha’apai prompting the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency. Credit: NASA
Jan 2014, Ha’apai, Tonga: Severe Tropical Cyclone Ian - the most powerful storm ever recorded in Tongan waters - made landfall on 11 January. The Category 5 system brought winds of over 200 km per hour and hit the island groups of Vava’u and Ha’apai prompting the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency. Credit: NASA

Tropical Cyclone Ian made landfall in northern Tonga on 11 January. It was the strongest storm ever recorded in Tongan waters.

Ian first appeared as a tropical depression between Fiji and Tonga on 6 January, and took five days to develop into a Category 5 system with winds of over 200km per hour.

The slow movement of the system gave the Government time to activate its National Emergency Management Committee to coordinate district and village preparedness networks, and issue warnings over national radio.

In the early hours of 11 January, the storm skirted east of the Vava’u group, before the eye passed directly over the northeast islands of Ha’apai, impacting around 5,000 people. The cyclone brought destructive winds and heavy rain, and caused flash flooding in low-lying coastal areas, prompting the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency for Vava’u and Ha’apai the same day.

One person died and thousands were left homeless in the worst affected islands of Uiha, Lifuka, Foa, Ha’ano, Lofanga and Mo’unga’one. In aerial photos taken by the New Zealand Air Force, debris could be seen scattered throughout villages, with roofs ripped from houses, power lines down, and trees uprooted.

Relief efforts underway

Around 50 per cent of the estimated 1,130 buildings on Ha'apai’s affected islands were completely destroyed, with over 2,300 people forced into more than 50 formal and informal shelters. The main priorities, say aid agencies on the ground, are emergency shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation for the thousands displaced.

Five hundred tents have been distributed by the Government, the Tonga Red Cross Society and the New Zealand Government, along with blankets, mosquito nets and hygiene kits. Food is being provided by local church groups or family members in other parts on Tonga. Most of the islands rely on rainwater harvesting so water bottles are also being provided until water tanks can be repaired and decontaminated.

After days without communication with loved ones, mobile phone and internet services have been restored, although the reconnection of electricity is expected to take months.

Pacific Humanitarian Team support accepted

On 21 January, the Government of Tonga accepted the offer of international support made by the Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT), a regional disaster response partnership, including UN agencies, regional and bilateral organizations, Red Cross, national and international NGOs, faith-based and community organizations, and donor partners.

The announcement followed a visit to Tonga by UN Resident Coordinator, Ms Osnat Lubrani, and the Head of OCHA in the Pacific, Mr Sune Gudnitz.

“We offered our deepest regrets for the loss of life, injury, and destruction of homes,” said Ms Lubrani of her meeting with Tonga’s Acting Prime Minister and Cabinet Members.

“After seeing first-hand the considerable devastation in Ha’apai, we discussed with the Government how the PHT could support existing efforts in response and early recovery.”

OCHA has sent a staff member to support Government coordination, and specialists in early recovery have arrived from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) along with water, sanitation and health experts from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). They will work with the National Emergency Management Office and Government Ministries to help address immediate needs, and develop a response and early recovery plan.

Long road to recovery ahead

OCHA’s Sune Gudnitz believes there is going to be months, and possibly even years, of recovery to come.

“There has already been quite a bit of mobilization and support to the Government from humanitarian partners to assist the people of Tonga, and we expect this to continue for some time into the future,” he said.

“Tonga is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. [But] Tongans are very resilient people.”

OCHA in the Pacific>>