The tidal waves generated by the volcanic eruption on 15 January 2022 displaced entire communities, with up to 80% of the population affected.
While the water has now receded, many families have lost everything and will require long-term support to get back on their feet.
‘All we could do was stand helpless in the dark’
Sione Vailea Tupou is from Mango, a small island located about 70km from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano. He has 2 sons working in Australia under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme and was at home with his wife and baby son at the time of the eruption.
“I will never forget that morning after the eruption when we came down from the hill to see that all [our homes were] gone, all that was left was sand,” he said.
At around 4:30pm on Saturday 15 January, he was talking with neighbours when he heard a sound like thunder and his baby son started crying. He hurried to the beach to see what was happening. The water was calm, but further out there was a strange whirlpool in the deep and he could see waves coming from afar.
Mr Tupou ran back to his house and told everyone to leave immediately for the highest point on the island. Later, as they waited on the hill, he realised that one of the 9 families on the island was missing. Tragically, the family hadn’t managed to escape in time and the elderly father lost his life to the surging waves.
“We could hear the waves destroying our homes and village but all we could do was stand helpless in the dark,” he said.
At first light, the villagers came down from the hill and saw that their homes had all been destroyed. They had no food, clothes or belongings left. Help arrived from the main island of Tongatapu the next day, and the villagers were relocated to another island before being moved to Tongatapu a few days later.
Mr Tupou said remittances from his sons working in Australia under the PALM scheme is the only source of income his family has left. They are planning to use some of the money his sons earn to buy a small boat so they can return to Mango to plant new crops, which they will sell on Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu.
‘We just stood there and cried because everything was gone’
Selu Taufa is from the village of Kanokupolu on Tongatapu. She and her husband are caretakers of their local church and were busy cleaning it when the eruption occurred.
When Mrs Taufa heard the blasts from the volcano, she didn’t immediately know what they were. She soon realised the coming danger, however, when the owners of a nearby resort drove around the village blasting their car horn and yelling at people to escape to higher ground.
Mrs Taufa was distressed as her son and daughter were at their friends’ houses at the time. Luckily, as she and her husband started running down the main road, they spotted their children running towards them and they were all able to jump into a neighbour’s car.
She said if it was not for the resort owners and the community helping each other to evacuate, many people would have died.
“When we reached the village, we could see that our homes were completely destroyed,” she said.
“We just stood there and cried because everything was gone - no food, no clothes. We will never forget that day and how we ran for our lives. None of us had time to take anything and now everything is lost.”
Mrs Taufa’s son has also worked in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme. The money he earned helped his family to start building a house but sadly it has now been destroyed. She said her son hopes to return to Australia soon to earn more money to help them rebuild.
How to help Tongan workers and their families
The King and the Government of Tonga are supporting displaced families by providing land and housing, but many people in Tonga now need the money their family members earn through the PALM scheme to help them meet basic needs such as education, clothing and the replacement of furniture and other household items.
These demands place enormous pressure on PALM scheme workers in Australia, who may be facing their own trauma after the tragic events in Tonga. Employers and other PALM scheme stakeholders can play an important role by providing additional support to workers and their families at this difficult time.
The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) also has a list of organisations that people can donate to, which will help meet identified needs on the ground in Tonga.
Please visit ACFID’s Tonga volcano and tsunami assistance page for more details.