“We ran for our lives” says Tonga resort owner

By Fīnau Fonua of RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission.

Just over a month since Tonga was struck by a violent one-in-a-thousand year disaster, it is still struggling to recover from the fallout of the devastating event which has left many communities in ruins and its inhabitants traumatised.

John and Maryanne in happier times. Their Vakaloa resort in Tonga was destroyed. Photo: Vakaloa Resort Hotel

“It’s a day I will never forget” said Maryanne Tuku’afu, the owner of Vakaloa Resort which was destroyed by tsunami waves.

“Someone said to me to look out at the ocean. My room had a view towards the ocean and when I opened the curtains and looked out at the water, it was totally different from usual waves. It became clear to me that there was going to be a tsunami. This was before the first explosion,”Tuku’afu said.

Tuku’afu called her husband from their nearby residence in Kanokupolu, who quickly picked her up and drove away to higher ground.

“When he arrived to the gates to enter Vakaloa, the sea had already reached the main road. We just took off, didn’t even turn at home, we just took off and told everybody on the road at Kanokupolu to move to high ground,” she said.

“It was quite an experience. I thank God that we all made it alive.”

During the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, there were successive deafening explosions, with the loudest generating a sonic boom that was heard as far away as Alaska. Tuku’afu said that the sound of the explosion alerted villagers to the gravity of the situation.

“When we shouted out to everyone, they knew it wasn’t a joke because the explosion confirmed that there was going to be tsunami,” Tukuafu said.An undersea volcano eruption in Tonga on Saturday 15 January, 2022. The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano came just a few hours after Friday's tsunami warning was lifted.

An undersea volcano eruption in Tonga on 15 January, 2022. The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano came just a few hours after Friday’s tsunami warning was lifted. Photo: Tonga Meteorological Services / EyePress via AFP

“The people who were outside their homes with their families didn’t go inside they just ran, they got in to their van with their kids and took off.”

Tuku’afu along with thousands of residents headed to higher ground where they witnessed ash fall that turned the sky pitch black.

According to NASA, the massive eruption was hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Yet remarkably, the country recorded only three fatalities.

The Difficult Recovery

The fallout of the volcanic eruption and tsunami has been devastating with water shortages affecting most of Tonga and ashfall that covered the archipelago is still being cleared.

Telecommunications remain severely limited with poor phone reception and slow internet, the result of the country’s underwater internet cable being cut by the eruption.Tongan health workers promoting the Covid-19 vaccination drive.

Photo: Supplied/ Tongan Ministry of Health

A recent outbreak of Omicron has been complicating matters even further, with a strict nation-wide lockdown closing down most businesses and requiring all Tongans to confine themselves in self-isolation.

“It really affects not only businesses but also the community because we employ a lot of the locals, and then with Covid-19 now, it’s just really really hard because we were in the midst of cleaning up, and now everything is on hold. Most of our staff have been layoff,” said Tuku’afu.

With so much infrastructure destroyed and damaged by the Tsunami, Tuku’afu said the recovery would be long term.

“It would be really nice to just have financial help from our Government here in Tonga, they have given all the businesses that have been destroyed, an emergency relief fund of $5,000 Pa’anga. It’s very thoughtful and it helps us pay our staff something instead of nothing at all,” she said.

“It just a very tough time for us all. I think god’s grace is sufficient for us. He provides for what we need daily. We’re just happy that we have a breath life.

Sometimes when a business is growing, it needs a little help.

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