Cyclone hit Tonga won't ask for help

Royal New Zealand Air Force aerial photos show considerable wreckage on the 23 inhabited islands in the 62 island Ha’apai group.
Royal New Zealand Air Force aerial photos show considerable wreckage on the 23 inhabited islands in the 62 island Ha’apai group.

An historic Tongan town of 2000 people has been left in ruins by one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the South Pacific and the fate of another 5000 people nearby is still uncertain.

Pangai, the administrative centre of the Ha'apai group and built around a Catholic Church, has lost most of its homes to Category 5 Cyclone Ian and most public buildings have damage.

Ian, which last week had wandered around the Koro Sea between Fiji and Tonga suddenly intensified and then lingered over Ha'apai with winds in excess of 200 kilometres per hour.

The notion of what has happened to the 7000 people on the 17 occupied islands of the 62 Ha'apai islands is still only sketchy.

Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion photos show several small villages completely destroyed but there are few signs of people.

Some areas show signs of severe storm surge and again there are few people in the pictures.

Most help to date has only reached Pangai, nothing is known outside.

"I have not seen such devastating damages from a cyclone," said Tonga Digicel's Tupou Faupula.

Ian's sole known fatality was a 51-year-old mother of three, Kalolaine Paongo of Pangai, who was hit by iron during the storm.A diabetic, she bled to death.

Tear Fund chief executive Ian McInnes, who is chairman of a co-ordinating group of all major New Zealand charities including Oxfam and World Vision, said aid agencies believed there had been "near total destruction" on Ha'apai, although they believed schools and churches might have survived.

Cyclone Ian, the first cyclone of the summer South Pacific cyclone season, largely by-passed Vava'u in the north and Tongatapu and its capital, Nuku'alofa, in the south.

Tonga was being vague about help. This was becoming common in Pacific Islands where governments wanted to be seen responding with their own resources, McInnes said.

The Tongan Government continued this evening to refuse to formally ask for international help.

And even as foreign media focussed on the disaster, the only public statement issued by the government this afternoon was to name a new finance minister.

Until today the kingdom has had two warring finance ministers and Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu, trying to fend off a growing political rebellion, has angrily said the country doesn't need foreign help.

For the expatriate Tongan community in Auckland the political crisis has left them unable to offer formal help.

"We've tried through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Auckland Mayor's Fund, and they tell us that Tonga has not asked for help," Auckland Tongan Advisory Council community head Malino Maka said.

"The Tongan Government should be looking at the people who have suffered in Cyclone Ian, they need to get on with it," Maka said.

The Tongan Government was giving a different picture about what had happened and was diverted by the deep political infighting.

"We don't want to engage in Tongan politics - we want to engage with the people who need help," Maka said.

McInnes said the political situation was alarming and bad timing."Tonga needs to get its act together and respond to the needs of its people," McInnes said.

Ian barely disturbed the intense political battle that has gripped Nuku'alofa. Prime Minister Siale'ataongo Tu'ivakano fired his finance minister, Lisiate 'Akolo, while he was in Auckland for trying to put up civil servant wages, calling him "disobedient, arrogant and uncooperative".

'Akolo returned to Tonga but security guards were placed at the Legislative Assembly to stop him from entering.

He claims to still control the Treasury but this afternoon, in the government's solitary media statement, it said King Tupou VI had approved  'Aisake Valu Eke, as minister of finance, back-dated to Friday.

The position is vital for Tonga that has verged on default for the last year with around 60 per cent of its debt owed to China.

McInnes said non-government groups could offer family and village level help, but it was the government's responsibility to provide electricity, water and schools.

"It's pretty simple; they are going to have to finance that response, and if there is ambiguity in the finance ministry, it needs to be sorted out quickly. It is time now to respond."

NGOs would continue to send help irrespective of whether the Government asked for help, McInnes said.

The best that donors could do was give cash now to credible and audited NGOs.

"People don't need woolly jumpers and odd-sized shoes."

Fairfax Media