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Thursday, February 13, 2014

News from Ha'apai


Uoleva Island lies between Ha'apai's main island Lifuka and Uiha Island, where my friend Horst Berger lives. Not having been able to contact Horst after Cyclone Ian, I emailed Patti Ernst who owns Serenity Beaches Resort on Uoleva Island.

Serenity Beaches Resort, Uoleva Island

Patti, who is right now in the United States, sent me this report:

Notes from the cyclone written February 7, 2014:

I left Ha’apai this morning exactly 4 weeks from the day we got the cyclone alert and I did my last email. I just counted the days today. I had no idea it had been so long. Sorry for the huge delay in communication. They said it would be a few weeks before they could get out to the island and put the antenna back up. By the time it was done, I would be leaving, so I just decided to wait – something one learns to do when living in Tonga.

Ha’apai survived category 5 cyclone Ian with only one life lost, but major damage that will take many months, hopefully not years, to repair. We have had 3 other cyclones, even a category 4, but nothing compared to this one. Our spirits are good and we plan to rebuild, but it will take a major effort. I had tried for cyclone insurance but we were refused. We did well even in the category 4 but Cat 5 is a whole different story. I saw Pangai today on my way through town and it is really devastated but money and help of all kinds is pouring in and in the long run all will be repaired and improved. It will, however, be a very slow process and Tongans must wait to have repairs happen. Most are now living in tents.

It was low season and Semi and I had settled into a relaxed life style in December with minor repairs, planning for a major expansion scheduled to start the second week in January, and doing lots of reading, guitar, daily yoga and swims. Guests were scheduled to arrive in January. Since it was cyclone season, I did an occasional check on Hurricane Zone.net and noticed that there was an area being watched near Fiji. It started to move toward us and by Monday was at 19 (we are 19.5) and 146 (we are 146.2) but it was a clear beautiful day with no wind. I joked with Salesi, "Where is it?" Then it headed north again and sat here most of the week. However, on Friday we got a cyclone alert but still did not really believe it was heading for us.

Late Friday, it turned around and aimed right for us. We made some final preparations, had a nice sleep that night but by 10 AM on Saturday January 11, it had passed Va’vau, and it became quite clear that we were in for a direct hit, and it was now being labeled category 5.

We prepared our tiny Tongan house to stay in but when we saw the level of the wind and the flailing of the tall palms, Semi expressed concern that one of the largest trees might fall on the house so we stayed in the staff housing, under the tin roof that is used to collect water. By noon, huge branches were flying through the air, rain was non-stop and horizontal, and the sound of the wind and the sea was deafening. We moved from room to room for shelter but a branch would hit a wall and it would collapse or the roof was dented and the room we were in became a waterfall. Finally, when we were wet and shaking from cold, Semi decided we must move to our house. At this point there were so many things flying through the air that the thought was terrifying, but we needed to get warm and dry, so all we could do was pray and run. Flying objects and horizontal rain paved the way.

We arrived safely, dried off and changed clothes and settled in to listening to the radio for hours - and hours. For the first time Tonga did a great job tracking and reporting the storm so we knew how far away it was, when it was in Pangai and when it had passed. However, to us it all seemed the same. During other cyclones we had breathing space when the eye went over, but this time no break, just steady hard wind and deafening noise for hours.

As it began to get dark, the report said it was south of Pangai. I kept asking Semi if he thought the sound was getting softer and finally after 7 pm it really did get softer. At one point Semi wanted to take a light and go out and look, but there was still too much wind and the danger of falling trees, branches & coconuts. Exhausted, I finally put my head down and slept. While I was asleep, Semi took a light and went for a walk. He returned with news that “everything is broken”. I still couldn’t face it until morning.

When the sun came up, we ventured forth to explore. It was difficult climbing over fallen trees and branches to get to the front side and to see the eating area with 11 roof panels scattered all over the ground – a new skylight. When we got there, Semi said, "Lets go see how the others are." So, the walk to the other side would have to wait.

We walked down the beach to Taiana’s where we found Kalafi making a sunshade out of torn plastic and Taiana cooking breakfast for her guests over a fire. Semi walked back to get beer, fish and vegies, which he cooked while Taiana cooked fallen breadfruit. We sat among totally flattened buildings sharing friendship and stories, allowing it to sink in and just being grateful to be alive.

As the sun got low in the sky, we headed back to take a walk to the other side. The sight was devastating. Half of the trees were knocked over and many had landed on the roofs. Roof pieces were missing, doors broken and shades all down. My words to Semi in the morning had been, "I think this is a sign for me to go back to the USA." Now as the sun set, his words to me were, "We need to rebuild." I agreed. Later in the week the minister we bought our new boat Triumph from, called and confirmed our thoughts with his words, “It is better to leave in victory than defeat.”

We headed back to take a shower – the water tank in the front, and the solar panels and refrig were still intact so cold drinking water and hot showers have been our luxuries. On the way back to our house in the dark I ran into a jagged branch which stripped the skin off my leg. Just today, almost 4 weeks later and lots of care, it has finally healed. From that point on, every step has been taken with great awareness and care. Hazards abound.

Monday morning was the day to begin the task at hand and a mighty task it is. We cleared a trail to the staff housing and found crackers and hot chocolate and had breakfast. Then we cleared another narrow trail to the front eating area and kitchen and arrived just in time for lunch. It was really slow going. My comment to Semi was, “What we really need is more hands. “

That night I got a call that the woman who had a reservation for Tuesday was on her way, was bringing supplies and was coming to help. Thus, the first of 3 angels from New Zealand and Fiji arrived.

Simone, a stunning blonde, originally form Kauai and now from Wanaka, NZ, arrived the next morning bearing gifts of toilet paper, tin fish, rice, tarps,… She hopped off the boat, rolled up her sleeves and went to work, sunrise to sunset, until the following Monday. Glowing, and with sweat pouring off of us, we forged new trails, cleared spaces and rested in the sea. The cleaning alone will take months but we had started.

Then, my daughter Laura, who has been doing a bit of my email from Florida said, Tony (a former guest) says he is free from work until Feb and would be happy to come if you need him.. Yes, yess yesss !!!!!! Tony arrived Friday with three hand saws, energy bars, a hard hat and an, I can do anything, attitude. He worked for 10 days non-stop. Tony had stayed here 2 years ago with his family and must have heard my call.

On Sunday morning we got a call that Semi’s precious, beautiful mom was in the hospital and a few hours later that she had died. So he flew on Monday and returned Friday and then went back the following Monday for the funeral that was delayed because of brothers arriving from overseas. So Semi has been away much of the time which has made the angels that have come to my rescue even more important.

While Tony was here, Salesi and 3 young boys came for 2 days to get the chainsaw work started. Eight acres of trees is a lot of trees. They got trails cleared and raked, and have much firewood nicely stacked. The four of them worked hard and fast and made a huge leap forward. The rewarding part of all this is that whatever you do it looks like a lot. And you have a great sense of accomplishment.

Then, just as Tony was about to leave, Simone called and said her ex-husband had 3 weeks left on his visa and was willing to come and help. “He loves to fish and will feed you all." So the day after Semi left for the funeral and to see his brothers from overseas, Tara, from Fiji arrived with a bucket of cream crackers, tin fish and loads of laughter. He is up every morning before the sun is up and goes to the other side and works for hours before breakfast.

Tara and I have worked together from sunrise to sunset, under the blazing sun. I have never needed to drink so much water. He has adopted me as his mother and comments often on my energy and ability to move so quickly and easily. We have changed the oil in the generator, pumped the water, prepared all the houses on the other side to be moved and rebuilt. Laughter rains – literally, rain comes in through the roof, as we try to eat and we laugh. Semi carefully covered all the openings with the tarps Simone brought but the follow-up storm, with 40 knot winds directly from the north, ripped them off and shredded them.

My memories are of a devastating storm that will take months or years to recover from, but more than that, of sweating under the hot sun, laughing with angels, loving caring people who opened there hearts and had the ability to come and help, appreciation that we made it through alive and have the energy and enthusiasm to rebuild.

My mantra since coming to Tonga, ”Another problem another opportunity to grow”, is more true than ever. There have been brief moments of discouragement and overwhelm, but mostly, day upon day of feeling totally blessed. My most vivid memories are of good times, working hard together, and the many faces and expressions of love.

Yes, this place was originally built with love. Now, it is being rebuilt with even more love, creativity and good times. The vegetation is not as thick but that will grow back.

Some places were totally washed away. Many people in Pangai are living in tents, as their homes having been totally washed away. People and countries around the world are coming to their rescue. I finally got to town today to see the devastation. When you make it through something like this you come out stronger. Karen, my daughter, says we know you are strong and you have enough stories to tell. Enough already!!!! It has been a month of isolation, demanding work, joy, love, laughter, and exhaustion. Not even any music, I poured the water out of my Bose speaker. Even the passports in the safe got wet.

I am ready for a break. Semi has had some time away so he is refreshed and ready for the heavy construction work he and his brothers have facing them. Four of them have started with enthusiasm and vigor. We plan to be open on one side by April and fully open by June. I have some videos I will get out. What an experience! One of my favorite songs has a line that says, “Some people seem destined to settle for something small, but I won’t rest until I know I’ve done it all”. Oops! Maybe I need to reconsider that as being a goal.

Another favorite quote has always been an old Chinese proverb, “My barn having burned I can now see the moon”. My rewrite is, "The cyclone having come, I can now see more stars from my bed.”

Thanks for your loving thoughts, prayers and messages. Every word of encouragement helps us have courage to keep on keeping on.

Much love,
Patti & Semi

Thanks, Patti; it's comforting to hear that you suffered relatively minor damage when compared to others on Lifuka and elsewhere.