Health Challenges Addressed In Tonga After Cyclone

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Authorities working to provide clean water, counseling

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Jan. 15, 2014) – In Tonga, the Ministry of Health is working with churches on the Ha'apai group of islands to provide counselling services for victims of Severe Tropical Cyclone Ian.

Director of Health, Dr Siale Akauola, told Pacific Beat that mental health services are a priority along with providing ample supplies of safe drinking water.

Four days after the category five cyclone devastated the Ha'apai group of islands, killing one person and making thousands homeless, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has published an assessment of the damage.

It says more than half of the 1,130 buildings that were affected by Cyclone Ian have been destroyed and 34 percent of the rest have major damage.

It says that of the 17 primary and secondary schools affected in Ha'apai, 13 have major damage.

"Fortunately most of the people who've been evacuated to evacuating centres are living in large church buildings which still have adequate sanitation facilities so I'd say close to 90 percent of people are living in such church facilities," Dr Akauola said.

"So the question is sustaining the clean water supply and what happens when they move back into their damaged homes because almost 80 percent of dwellings or houses were either destroyed or have sustained major damage."

[PIR editor’s note: Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu told Radio Australia that Tonga's cabinet will be meeting to decide how much aid will be required to deal with reconstruction in the aftermath of Cyclone Ian. International aid partners have been asked to stand by while Tongan authorities assess the situation on the ground and in the long-term, Vaipulu said, adding that clean up efforts were progressing. Tear Fund New Zealand, meanwhile, has called on Tonga's government to formally ask for international assistance, and CEO Ian McInnes says Tonga faces a significant effort to rebuild in the face of already considerable public debt. According to Matangi Tonga, Tonga Power Ltd. has estimated it will cost about US$1.6 million to rebuild the entirety of the Ha'apai island group's power distribution network, as the cyclone had destroyed close to 90 percent of it, with power lines and poles destroyed. Company staff are currently working on high- and low-voltage lines. Acting CEO Steven 'Esau, however, says the lines and poles could not be insured, because Tonga is considered at high risk to cyclones.]

Dr Akauola says staff are taking action to ensure diseases like dengue fever or typhoid do not take hold by spraying for flies and mosquitoes as well as sourcing mosquito nets.

Relief distribution still a challenge

The United Nations situation report says the most immediate challenge is logistics to distribute relief and recovery items to outer islands as well as within affected areas.

It says the Tongan Government continues to manage the response without a call for formal international assistance although it is receiving bilateral help from New Zealand, Australia, the UNOCHA and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The Australian and New Zealand governments have pledged a total of almost US$100,000 towards relief efforts in Tonga.

During the cyclone on Haiaipe, one person was killed and 14 injured. Dr Akauola says all the injuries are being managed by the local doctor and staff at the hospital.

He says one person was seriously injured but the rest have minor injuries and although the local hospital was damaged, it is now 80 percent operational.

Dr Akauola says details on the needs of the outer islands still are coming through and the Health Ministry is responding as it receives information.

[PIR editor’s note: Elsewhere, Tongans in Auckland, New Zealand, have been organizing supplies to set sail for Tonga on Friday, paid for by the Auckland Mayor's Relief Fund. Tonga's Red Cross secretary general, Sione Taumoefolau, has said the main stockpile of relief supplies in Nuku'alofa have been exhausted, leaving nothing in the capital warehouse for supplies.]

Mental health services a priority

But he says a major focus is to offer psychological care and the Ministry is working with the church groups who deal with post-disaster counselling.

"A lot of people would need psychological counselling after this disaster so we are working with NGOs and church groups to provide that service for people," he said.

"We have (set up) a sub-committee to look at the specific strategies we are going to use to develop the whole infrastructure for this group of islands like buildings, looking at the utilities, waste management and things like that."

[PIR editor’s note: Radio New Zealand International has also reported that police in Tonga are concerned as people have allegedly been taking advantage of the post-disaster situation by looting vacated homes and stores. Ha’apai superintendent Inspector ‘Okusitino Peleki said most of the items taken have been alcohol and weapons, and some people have already been arrested.]

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