Natural Disasters

The Peace Corps has five levels of color-coordinated emergency action plans, kind of like President Bush’s trusted terror alerts, but these plans have been enacted more and more recently as the world seems to be disintegrating into natural disaster. A few weeks ago, the big event was a cyclone. We were on stand-fast for a few days—pretty much a warning not to go too far from our homes. Volunteers in Ha’apai and Vava’u were made to consolidate a few days earlier than us in Tongatapu—stuck in a church and a house with few supplies and the never-ending company of each other. We had our freedom a few more days, although I did use the impending cyclone as an excuse to miss church, a pattern of excuses that increases every week. It was a sunny day that Sunday and I thought maybe the cyclone had turned, but just before five, I got a call saying it was time to consolidate. So I closed windows and moved everything as far from them as possible. I packed my bag including food and water, and we all made for the Peace Corps Office.

The storm was supposed to hit first at 9 pm. Then it was pushed back until midnight, then 12 am, then 4 am, and continued to be pushed back until 6 pm the following day—on Tongan time obviously, always arriving later than scheduled or expected. A category 4. It started raining during our first night of sleep and as we kept being warned of the delayed beginning, the storms increasing ferocity was also relayed with deaths reported in Samoa and Vava’u. When the storm hit, we were all moved upstairs, where we held a perfect theatrical seat to the fight between wind and tree, a quarrel the wind seemed to win when the trunk cracked a few feet from the porch, and toppled a few trees in the back of the office. A river poured down the main street in the front, and water seeped underneath the doors of the building on the second floor. It only lasted a few hours, and then we reached what some said was the eye of the storm; others, the armband. I don’t know if it was the eye, or the shoe or the headband or the jockstrap. We waited around for the storm to hit full force, but the heavy winds never seemed to materialize again.

At 6:30 the next morning, we were awakened and told it was time to go home. Streets and houses were flooded, power lines down, roofs blown off local stores, trees and house debris littering school lawns, but somehow my house was relatively untouched and my dog, who I had to leave untied and unsheltered to fend for himself, was lying on my porch when I arrived. There was no electricity for a week, and ants seemed to find refuge from the rain and flooding, but my house and I were safe with chainsaws buzzing outside communicating other houses and all our electricity would soon be restored, which it finally has been, although there are a few power lines still lying in the road. The storm seemed insignificant, and while the damage was not as bad as it could have been, it was certainly a lot worse than the storm seemed to merit. The craziest damage I heard of was on the eastern side of the island. Tongan graves are pretty much large mounts of sand, often decorated with glass bottles. The cyclone dug up many of these graves, and bones were spread across the beaches, families looking futilely to identify the remains of their already deceased.

Two weeks later—this morning at 2 am—I got many phone calls, all which I missed, but was finally awoken by another volunteer to be told about the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile and that we were on tsunami warning. Again we consolidated, first biking to the Peace Corps Office and then collectively moving to higher ground, but Tonga luckily did not seem to get too much damage, unlike certain other Pacific Island countries and of course Chile itself. Reports of impending waves reached as high as 12 feet which would have been horrible for this flat island, but the biggest one that hit the capital was only .3 feet, the largest hitting Tonga someone said being a meter. I haven’t heard of much damage, although best safe than sorry I guess. It does seem weird, however, how rapidly the world’s list of natural disasters seems to be expanding.


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