It was around 5:00pm on that Saturday 15th of January 2022 and I was waiting in line at the car wash when one Ford Ranger cut through in front of me. I asked the attendant who said that the Ranger went to get something from the shop and would be back. I said to myself that this was not going to spoil my weekend as I was ready for a nice relaxing evening around the kava bowl.
The first of 3 “sonic booms” came at around 5:10pm. I was not taken by the boom as I was listening to the radio and busy with the Falcon Squad game app on my phone. What caught my attention was the pressure on the ear drums that felt like I was diving 5 metres deep underwater. I looked outside and everyone seemed to look to the sky, pointing their phones to the horizon. By the time the second sonic boom hit, I knew this was not normal at all. I opened my door to the sound wave that rattled the door window. I realised the volcano that was active the day before just exploded again so I was not too worried about the explosion. It was the third and biggest sonic boom that rattled my cage as I held on to the vehicle and felt the impact of the sound wave. All of a sudden, both my phones rang and I saw my wife calling. It was a scramble to get my sons and my father-in-law to come home and remain there for the evening. Sirens with policemen yelling over the speakers to move away from the shores and move inland NOW!
By 6:00 pm, what was a nice pleasant Saturday afternoon was replaced by a dark cloud of ash literally moving between us and the pleasant sunset. The image that came to my mind was the arrival of the enemy spaceship into our world in the Marvel sequel, Endgame. I looked up and I was just waiting for that spacecraft to appear with billows of flames and smoke. I also began hearing the heavy raindrops on tinned roofing iron – a familiar and relaxing sound in the tropics. Instead of rain, I felt ash falling on my face and saw the ground beginning to turn black. By the time I got home, I could barely see through the windscreen given the thickness of the ash fall. Here again, it was like driving in thick snowfall, only this time the snow was ash and it was thick and black. I was able to get a few emergency supplies and got the family to remain calm and cuddle up to my father-in-law’s small radio to listen to the news.
The air was thick, smelt of burnt material, and the air was hot. We lost our electricity for about 2 hours after the blast. By then the winds were already whipping through with increasing intensity, belting ash onto the walls of the houses like it was plaster. The gale force winds with momentary gusts to about 60kmph went on for about 4 hours. The last element to be mixed with the ash and the wind was the rain. The rain dampened the ash and after the ash-rain-fall, there was an eerie calm to the evening…here again just like the aftermath of a heavy snowfall.
My youngest one was the first to wake up and came back in with ash on his feet! “Dad, is this what they call snow?” We began clearing the walkways and the veranda and the house in general. We started removing ash the day after the blast and 1 month to the day, we are still removing ash from our residences and from our vehicles. Some more entrepreneurial Tongans have used the ash to plaster houses and it seems to attract many including myself to plaster a part of the house in remembrance of that day!
I had my relatives from the western side of Tongatapu come over to spend the first couple of weeks with us at home as theirs was flooded and had to be redone. So our house turned into an evacuation centre. Now that the families have returned to their homes, my children began asking when they were going to come back. I told them that the house was built for that purpose so they should be thankful to have such a shelter they can share with their relatives.
The volcanic explosion tore up more than 150km of fibre-optic cable that linked Tonga to Fiji and the outside world and domestically with the other island groups. So Tonga has been without a good and reliable internet connection for a month. For the first few days, there was literally no word from Tonga; we were effectively cut off from the world. Some of us were delighted by not having access to the internet, emails and zoom calls and Facebook; some of us clearly had withdrawal symptoms.
We look forward to reconnecting in earnest to the world before the end of the month and so there will be a lot of social media updates from Tonga by then. Right now, Tongans remains deeply grateful to countries like Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia that have accompanied the Kingdom since the 15th of January. They were the first onsite and it was indeed a reassuring feeling to know that they were here to help and provide much needed emergency assistance. Since then, the Americans, the French, the British, the Japanese navy ships have brought in much needed emergency assistance to Tonga. Just today the Chinese navy ship carrying a lot of emergency supplies docked at the wharf here in Nuku’alofa.
Our government will convene a series of meetings to assess the results of the emergency phase and begin to transition into the recovery phase for Tonga. We here in Tonga are overwhelmed by the assistance coming to Tonga from our friends and relatives abroad.
The news of container loads of goods and much needed supplies from our relatives and friends and the general public in New Zealand is special news for us. I know that the Anglican Church, the Anglican Mission Board and Christian World Service have been very active on the ground in NZ. They have collected funds to be used in the recovery efforts here in Tonga as well as to cover the costs for replenishing pre-positioned supplies used for the elderly and poor families across Tonga.
Malo aupito e ‘ofa moe tokoni!
I feel sorry for the owner of that Ford Ranger!
Fe’iloakitau Kaho Tevi
Anglican Church Representative on the Christian World Service Board
Member of GSTHW (General Synod of ACANZP)
General Synod Standing Committee member
Te Kotahitanga member
Lambeth Conference Bishop’s Conversations Facilitator
Former Climate Change Advisor to Archbishop Emeritus Winston Halapua
February 16, 2022