Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Gita Uike Taha

It has now been one week since tropical cyclone Gita left us in her wake of destruction.  We emerged from our shelters to survey the damage and check on each other and take stock of our current situation.  I think most of us were in a bit of a stupor; not really knowing what to expect; what to do;  or in many cases what we had actually just been through.  There are probably many other things I may think of to add to the following list over time, but I did want to capture a few of my thoughts.

The sound of singing and praising the Lord before Gita

I offer the following observations related to the storm

  • Gita was tracking for a direct hit on Eua and Tongatapu.
  • This storm packed the strongest winds of any cyclone to hit Tonga in recorded history.
  • Gita was forecast to be over Nuku'alofa for 12-18 hours.
  • Torrential rain would also accompany the record breaking winds.
  • Gita was bringing with her a tidal surge of 10 M (Tongatapu is mostly flat with a high point of around 65M above sea level).
  • A large part of the population live in fale's constructed in more of a make-shift manner.
  • Almost no businesses or homes have emergency power (generators).
  • Emergency services and healthcare in Tonga are very limited at best.
  • Most homes do not have potable water (usually a cistern) and although most Tongans drink that water bottled water is available in most stores.
  • Stores (especially grocery type stores) are few and far between with most buying supplies from small roadside stored that have limited products and supplies.
  • Most Tongans live off the land ... farming and foraging in the uta (bush).
  • Internet access is very unreliable (even without a storm).
Small village church in Kolomatu'a
(before Gita)
Same church after Gita

These photos and the above video were taken by Brother and Sister Fisher.

Side view of the same church after Gita

Now I offer a few post Gita observations
  • Gita did hit Eua and Tonga with her full force ... the eye moving from East to West along the Southern shores of Tongatapu.  Her winds were terrifying and the rains torrential.
  • It was reported that over 70% of the homes in Tonga were damaged or destroyed by Gita.
  • Most of he Southern shoreline is quite a bit higher and rockier than shorelines on the East, North and West thus better equipped to handle the brunt of a tidal surge.
  • All missionaries were instructed to leave their MQs and head to LDS churches in their areas.  MQs are quite well constructed and very few had anything other than water damage but the President wanted them gathered whey he knew they would be safe.
  • I am aware of only one LDS meetinghouse that had more than cosmetic damage and that was a chapel that did lose a small portion of the roof.
  • There was not a single death in Tonga attributed to Gita and only about 30 serious injuries.
  • Electrical power was out everywhere and unavailable except where emergency generators were available (we have emergency generators on the Liahona campus).
  • There was no run on supplies at the stores.  Everyone was calm and orderly.
  • Missionaries were where they could help others with whatever needs arose.  I'm sure there was some fear but since they were focused on helping others there wasn't much time to be afraid.
  • After the storm missionaries were able to provide valuable service to those in need.  They were in the communities they served in so they new the town and its residents well.
  • Power lines were down all over the island and some in the downtown area were still live with electricity.  We only had minor injuries reported by the missionaries and all are doing very well now.
  • For some reason, our internet connection remained active for most of the night throughout the storm and I was able to provide some updates and receive some communication from the outside world.  It has remained up since so we were able to pass messages and photos from others to their loved ones at home.
A beautiful Catholic church in Houma that survived Gita
LDS missionaries helped in the clean-up.

It was reported by many news sources that because Tonga has strict laws prohibiting commerce on Sunday, preparations for Gita were hampered, but my observation is that because Tongans worship on Sunday and they do their best to keep it a holy day dedicated to God and family, they were spared from some of the more serious hardships that should have come with this disaster.  I believe what ended up being about a 4 hour window for the brunt of the storm and less than 12 hours for it to pass completely was a direct result of the millions of prayers offered for the people of Tonga.

How anyone who knows the state of the homes of a large percentage of the Tongan population can find any other explanation for zero deaths and only 30-ish injuries as anything other than a direct blessing from God is beyond me.

Yes, we had major destruction from the wind; yes, we had serious damage to property from flooding; and yes, many families were displaced; but the attitude of gratitude to God is present everywhere.  Tongans say, "I only lost my roof", or "everything is soaked and covered in mud", or even, "my car was the only thing that was destroyed".  And they always have that marvelous Tongan smile on their face.

Missionaries to a person have said how close they have become to the members and how their love for the people has increased.  They have worked so hard to help so many and they too break out in smiles whenever we see them.  I wish I could properly convey the love we have for these wonderful missionaries, they do so much with so little and have had a huge impact on those they serve.

For all of the blessings of safety and comfort we received, we will be forever grateful.  The farm crop cycle has been disrupted and although their is a glut of bananas, coconuts, papaya and other crops, the real concern starts in 2-3 weeks when it is time for harvest and there is nothing ready.  We know we will be blessed and there is a lot of outside assistance coming but we do still ask you to pray specifically for Tonga.

Missionary transfers are happening today and even without electricity some business (stores restaurants, and gas stations) are opening.  School is back in session at a few of the schools and all over Tonga things are beginning to get back to the new normal.

Sunset over Tonga 4 days after Gita - all is well