Conditions In Cyclone-Affected Ha'apai Islands Bleak

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Residents urged to begin replanting, catch fish to avoid shortages

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Jan. 29, 2014) - Living in small tents superheated by the mid-summer sun, while going through the trauma of the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Ian, is the reality of life for families in the Ha'apai Group who are relying on outside assistance after losing all on the afternoon of January 11.

"It is as if their world has come to a complete stop," said Semisi Fakahau from the Fisheries Council, who was a member of an FAO-funded Survey Team that assessed the extent of the cyclone-damage to the agriculture and fishing industries on January 17-24.

The survey team estimated by mid-February the food crops would be used up in all the districts of Kauvai Ha'ano, Lifuka, Foa and 'Uiha, which were badly damaged.

"People need to start planting crops immediately that will produce fruits and root bulbs, and more people need to catch fish for food and sell for cash income. This will help to cater for any likely short and long term food shortages," he said.

Semisi told Matangi Tonga after returning to Nuku'alofa on January 25 that Mo'unga'one Island and Kauvai Ha'ano were the worst affected areas, but the damage was similar to the damage seen in Foa and Lifuka.

Trauma

"I felt so sad for these people," Semisi said. "It was quite an experience to all of us team members as the situation in all four districts that were affected is so bad as 95 percent of the homes and church buildings were either flattened or completely destroyed and trees were cut into bits and pieces," he said.

He said the practical part of the survey was easy and went well because people cooperated.

"The most difficult part was coming face to face with people who were and are still going through the trauma and after effects of having to protect themselves and their valuable possessions, but ended losing all they had in a matter of just a few hours. It was so sad seeing each family, in particular adults, just sitting quietly on the debris looking out while the kids play on whatever safe space they find, as if their world has come to a complete stop. It was quite an emotional experience for me."

Semisi said another obvious issue to be addressed is the psychological effect of the cyclone and damage on the people. "I could see it in older people - they really need counselling," he said.

"Most families have been given tents by the Tonga Red Cross to live in but the tent is small and very hot during the day because of its dark blue colour under the boiling hot sun. During the sunny time of the day people gather under parts of the damaged houses that still stand to rest and keep cool as trees no longer provide shelter because all the leaves have gone," he said.

Food problem ahead

Semisi said all the fruits of coconut, mango and breadfruit trees were shaken off and coconut is the only tree type that still has leaves hanging, although broken and starting to dry up.

"There is no food shortage yet but it will become a problem in around six months from now when the yams and other crops that were planted before the cyclone run out.

"Most fishing boats and outboard engines were seriously damaged and some damaged beyond repair and most fishermen lost their fishing gear and equipment," he said.

Water

Semisi said the availability of clean water remained a problem but Government was providing bottled water and packaged food items to all villages, a practice that would continue until the village water systems were fixed and operational. Electricity was slowly being restored and telephone systems were operating well throughout the islands, but access to the internet was still problem.

"The old people who lived through past cyclones that hit the Ha'apai islands said that this cyclone was the most powerful they have ever experienced in terms of wind speed and short visibility. People said it was like a very thick rolling cloud blocking their views."

He said help from donor countries and agencies was starting to arrive in Tonga and the reconstruction of houses would start soon and continue throughout year, as more than 1,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed.

He expected the survey findings should be completed by the team this week and the report would provide more accurate information on the extent of damages caused by the cyclone to fishing and agriculture industries.

Team leader

Mana'ia Halafihi from the Ministry of Agriculture who led the survey team said they would present their report to the Minister for Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries and CEO on Friday, January 31, and it would also be submitted to the funding agency FAO.

"We estimated the damages to the food crops and trees to be around 80 to 90 percent. Breadfruit, coconut trees were snapped by the cyclone but they will regrow. The food crops left on the island will be finished after next week, so we will need to send food assistance to them," he said.

The survey was conducted on Lifuka, Foa, Kauvai Ha'ano and 'Uiha to assess and report the extent of the damage to the agriculture, fisheries industries. "The restoration and reconstruction will be big," he said.

Assistance

Dr Pita Taufatofua a consultant from FAO and a member of the survey team said they estimated by mid-February the food crops would be used up in all the districts of Kauvai Ha'ano, Lifuka, Foa and 'Uiha which were badly damaged.

"We are trying to complete the report by Friday to be handed over to the Minister for Agriculture and NEMO because donor partners are eager to learn of the extent of the damages to agriculture and see what they can assist in. We will make recommendations of the pressing needs that need addressing now and a more long-term plan for recovery," he said.

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