Belinda Fraser shares the terrifying ordeal that still remains fresh and raw in residents minds three weeks after the volcanic eruption near Tonga

A pleasant sunny afternoon in the beautiful Kingdom of Tonga. Blue skies on the cusp of culminating to another picturesque sunset here in the friendly isles. You really couldn’t ask for a better end to the day. 

My husband, David, had just sat down to watch the Ashes cricket series showing on the local cable channel.  I was contemplating what to cook for dinner.

A slight tremor.  The glass panels around the home rattled faintly.

That’s it! David and I immediately thought that this was the beginning of an earthquake.  We had experienced a few earthquakes in the last three years here on the main island of Tongatapu and were acutely aware of the signs.

BOOM! Our double-storey building shook so violently. Oh my world, what on earth was happening?

BOOM! Earth-shattering shockwaves that I can only describe as bomb explosions in the atmosphere hurt our eardrums so much as the deafening sound intensified.

BOOM! The sheer force of the multiple explosions sent part of our ceiling and large heavy glass doors in the foyer crashing thunderously to the floor with shattered glass scattered everywhere. Electrical wiring dangled dangerously from the gap of the fallen ceiling.

Explosion after explosion pounded our home and surroundings.

Adrenalin took over shock and fear.  We quickly ran toward the kitchen all the while anticipating further damage about to happen all around us.

I lost track of the number of explosions, our ears were ringing. I prayed as David held onto me.

The pretty blue sky suddenly turned jet black.  It was raining black ash and pebbles that hit our roof hard and fast like a hail storm in its element. We were witnessing cataclysmic scenes so surreal, glaringly ominous and extremely frightening.

Time stood still. It seemed that way to us at that very moment.

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, located approximately 65km away from Tongatapu, had erupted this time with catastrophic effects to the local population.

A quick reference to the Tonga Meteorological Service Facebook page informed us that there was an actual tsunami warning now in force for Tonga.

Lord help us! As if the current events unfolding before our eyes weren’t traumatising enough.

The big question. The ultimate decision of life and death.

Were we safe at home or do we make a dash inland amidst the furious falling volcanic ash, pebbles and simultaneous volcanic eruptions?

Our home is located in Haveluloto about a kilometre from town and adjacent to the water within the Fanga ‘Uta Lagoon nestled by the Fanga Kakau Lagoon.  A few years prior, our scientist friend had told us that in the event of a tsunami, we were protected within these two lagoons. 

While we took comfort in that knowledge, we were under no illusions of that guarantee as Mother Nature was known to defy scientific deduction. But we didn’t have the luxury of running to higher ground. Time was of the essence.

In the end, we opted to stay at home with the top floor as our safe haven.

Looking outward to our backyard, we saw that the water was eerily calm.  Not a ripple in sight.

A hastily typed social media post to let all our family and friends know what was happening and a quick call to my beloved mother in our homeland, Fiji, was the last stream of communication with the outside world. While speaking to my mother, the electricity, water and international telecommunication links abruptly ceased. Goodbye world.

In the warm pitch-black darkness, we could see from our top floor that the Tafa’ahau road was laden with bumper to bumper traffic all exiting the nearby suburbs close to town. Everyone was headed toward the safest place possible. Their destination was further inland.  That is the only option here on Tongatapu in a retreat to relative safety for the majority of residents as the topography is mostly flat terrain speckled with only a few tiny slopes. 

Surprisingly, we could still make local mobile calls.  Immediately, we quickly called all our friends to check on them.  They were all ok.  However, five fellow Fijians who live along the hard-hit West coast of Tongatapu were caught unawares and evacuated their home which had flooded and sustained considerable damage.  They were afraid and had been driving around aimlessly with nowhere to go.  We welcomed them home to take shelter with us for the night.

After about an hour, silence returned although we could still hear the volcano grumbling albeit in a subdued manner which would continue well into the night till about 2:00 am.

We were all tired, weary from the course of events that had just transpired. Alas, sleep eluded us as hearing the volcano in the distance rendered an uneasy feeling that refused to subside. 

As daylight arrived, I finally closed my eyes and thanked God for keeping us all safe in the palm of his hand.  The dreaded tidal wave did not reach us this time. We were alive, unharmed and grateful for being spared a more perilous fate. We were one of the lucky ones.  Our home had sustained some structural damage but was not destroyed like so many others. 

However, the same could not be said for many of our fellow residents once the dawn of Sunday shone its light on the remnants of the last twelve hours.

Three weeks have passed since that terrifying ordeal that still remains fresh and raw in our minds. 

Many homes, businesses and resorts especially along the Western part of Tongatapu were severely damaged with some completely destroyed.  The enormity of the devastation all around us is truly heartbreaking especially since many were still trying to rebuild after Tropical Cyclone Harold and survive the COVID pandemic.

We’ve heard so many stories from survivors described in chilling detail as they fled the oncoming tsunami.  Sadly, there are three fatalities so far and reconnaissance missions are underway to establish the extent of the loss and damage throughout Tonga.

Roads and buildings everywhere are still covered in volcanic ash and removing the ash is an arduous task.  The potent smell of sulphur still permeates the air and everyone is wearing masks due to the poor air quality in addition to the current COVID community transmission. There is a shortage of clean drinking water in the country.  Internet connection is extremely slow and sporadic until the undersea cable, damaged by the volcano, is repaired.

A huge sigh of relief as much needed drinking water and critical aid have arrived from international and regional donors in the last fortnight.  Bless their kind hearts.

The old adage, caught between a rock and a hard place is an understatement when you take into consideration Tonga’s exposure to natural disasters.

As the third-ranked country in the 2021 World Risk Index, unfortunately, Tonga is extremely vulnerable to geological hazards.  Moreover, Tonga sits right along the subduction zone where the Australian and Pacific Tectonic plates meet and also within the Pacific Ring of Fire. 

With this augmented vulnerability, it’s not a matter of how long till the next natural disaster in Tonga but one of pure survival long term for this Pacific monarchy.  There is no doubt that the volcano will erupt again and the magnitude of the next resurgence is daunting but an inescapable reality. 

In hindsight, it is somewhat of a blessing that the volcanic eruption and tsunami occurred during the day.  I shudder to think what could have happened had we all faced these two natural disasters in the dead of night.

In the meantime, life goes on in this charming Pacific Island nation. 

The solemn shades of grey that engulfed Tonga three weeks ago are slowly fading away.

With hearts as big as the Pacific Ocean that surrounds them, Tongans and fellow residents remain strong and continue to work alongside each other to rebuild and move on one day at a time.  

We live in hope that better days are ahead, as it is in these difficult times that humanity, hope and prayer will carry us through.

This story was written by Belinda Fraser on 15 January 2022, published at PACNEWS on 09 February 2022, reposted via PACNEWS.

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