The unforgettable sound of thunder
January 15, 2022 has become an unforgettable date for the people of Tonga as they are reminded of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano eruption that destroyed parts of the Island Nation forcing families to relocate, leaving their homes and livelihoods behind.
Francis Latu Prescott will never forget that day that turned grey and left many families heartbroken.
"I was out in the garden when I noticed the dogs and chicken were acting funny and that is when I heard the huge bang," said Ms. Prescott.
She talked about her experience of how she was left running for her life with just a backpack and her phone in the hopes to get up to Kings Vila Chauter for safety.
"Most of the neighbors had already evacuated in Sopu and I was running on my own when a generous couple picked me up and dropped me at the Kings Vila Chauter. It was very scary because by then the ash had come down and it became very dark and there were so many people.
"At that moment when everything is happening you are just running for survival trying to get to a safe place. Luckily, I was able to get in contact with some family members. My brother was the most scared for me as he was the last person to speak to me and while I was explaining to him the situation, the lines cut off and we lost all connectivity," said Ms. Prescott.
She explained what a heart shattering experience it was for her family abroad who were seeing the news of what had happened in Tonga and were not able to connect with her to know if she was safe.
Ms. Prescott heard about the Satellite phone calls being offered by the Tonga Red Cross under their program "Restoring Family Links" which is funded and supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
She reached out to the office and was able to connect with her sister and mum in New Zealand and informed them that she was safe.
"I felt relieved after speaking to my family and that prompted my decision in becoming a volunteer to help the Tonga Red Cross during this challenging time," said Ms. Prescott.
With tears in her eyes, she stressed that a year later it is still so sad to see that some houses are still not rebuilt yet and basic resources are not available to families in Tonga.
"Volunteering for the Tonga Red Cross helped me in healing the wounds and scars caused by the disaster. It helped knowing I was out in the community helping people in some way," explained Ms. Prescott.
Hola Faka'osi a resident of Mango Island which was completely destroyed after the volcano eruption and tsunami, shared her family's quick response to the volcano eruption.
"When we heard the second thunder, my eldest son who is a fisherman instructed the family to move to higher grounds as from our home he could see that the tides were changing its course and there was a possibility of a tsunami," said Mrs. Faka'osi.
She further explained that in a matter of minutes things took a very dark turn when sea water started to come in land, they saw their fence crumbling and their neighbors running towards the mountains for safety to get to higher grounds.
"Half of the population of Mango Island had come up to the higher grounds with children, women and elderly having no food, water or even a change of nappies for the babies. All we heard in the dark night was continuous loud thunder.
"To protect ourselves from the smoke and ash, men covered their noses and mouths with their t-shirts and women used the mats that were around," said Mrs. Faka'osi.
Another resident of Mango Island Kalisi Levani expressed how heart breaking it was walking down the mountain the next morning and looking at the debris of the tsunami which had left their beautiful home Island unrecognizable and destroyed.
"We felt like we were alone and that there was no hope. Life had lost its flavor. Families were crying and depressed as all our homes had been completely destroyed. The cemetery was destroyed, and the tombs were exposed," explained Mrs. Levani with tears rolling down her eyes.
The 82-year-old shared that after this experience, she had many sleepless nights with lost hope. In all this she acknowledged the Tonga Red Cross for being the first responder after the disaster in providing her family and the people of Mango Island with the much-needed assistance and first aid.
"We are grateful to the Tonga Red Cross for attending to us and for all the other humanitarian aid that was provided," said Mrs. Levani.
Following the volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga The New Zealand Red Cross shared information in Tongan and English language with the Tongan community in New Zealand and received 317 enquiries in the initial 72 hours following the eruption.
Enquiries were sent to the Tonga Red Cross with the help of the ICRC in Suva, Fiji. The work of the Restoring Family Link team at New Zealand Red Cross was valuable in providing reassurance that the Red Cross Movement would be there to search for their families.
The ICRC in Suva was in continuous dialogue with the Tonga Red Cross to understand the situation on the ground and to support them through Satellite phone calls which were used to help connect families with their loved ones abroad.