As Cyclone Gita headed towards Tonga last weekend, a group of young Anglicans gathered at All Saints Church in Fasi, Nuku’alofa to prepare their response. They had received training in geographic information systems – or GIS – and knew how to use it to carry out Community Integrated Vulnerability Assessments to work out who would be most at risk from the impending winds. They had identified 22 homes in their neighbourhood which were least likely to ride out Cyclone Gita’s winds or which sat in the most flood-prone areas.
On Monday, the youngsters visited the homes to help batten down roofs and lift furniture; and they distributed simple survival kits to homes where widows and elderly people lived. They returned to the church for a debrief before heading home to secure themselves before Gita’s 260 kmh winds arrived on Monday night.
On Tuesday, the youngsters headed out again to check on the elderly and widows, and worked to clear debris from their properties.
“Our young people did a very good job before, during and after the cyclone”, surveyor and GIS expert Viliami Folau, a member of All Saints, said. “They weren't lavish. Just a few items – candles, canned fish, matches, biscuits, water – but when the young people handed them to the elderly, you should have seen the smiles on those old people's faces.
“It was knowing that the church cares for them. I think that's the most important thing of all. These old people, these widows, see that during the bad times, even cyclones, the church wants to ensure that they're OK.
“In the Pacific, events like Gita are getting more frequent, and more severe. So it’s good to see the young people learning about climate change, and becoming truly engaged with disaster preparedness, prevention – and recovery.”
The Diocese of Polynesia’s Fei Tevi, a consultant to Pacific Island governments, said that Gita had blown down three homes within walking distance of All Saints’ Church. A further five families’ homes had sustained major structural damage.
“I have experienced two category 5 cyclones in three years,” he told Anglican Taonga. “This is going to become the norm in this region. And as a church, we need to find a way to be responding to the needs of the people in these types of extreme situations. GIS and CIVA training is one of the ways we can do that – and we’ve done it well here. It’s a success.”
Gita has been described as the worst storm to hit the Tongan islands in 60 years. It struck about 8 pm on Monday, peaking at 233 km/h between 11 pm and 2 am. It brought down electricity lines, and destroyed a number of buildings, including the national parliament. The roof of the weather centre was taken off; and the state broadcaster’s transmissions were halted for a while.
Of the 30 people injured, one remains in a critical condition with severe head wounds. A 72-year-old man died from a heart attack, and officials are linking his death to the storm.