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Massive Ha‘apai clean-up starts today

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Hammer in his hand, Pala Tavake with his wife 'Eseta, begins to rebuild their home, at Koulo, Lifuka Island. 13 January 2014.

Photos by Pesi Fonua

The first flight landed at Lifuka’s Salote Pilolevu Airport shortly after dawn this morning (13 January 2014). Digicel-Tonga’s charter flight was carrying technicians on an urgent mission to restore communications and power. As Tropical Cyclone Ian moved away from Tonga, we found the Ha‘apai people emerging from the shelter of their churches and schools to clean-up after the most powerful cyclone ever known to cross Tongan waters.

The airport landing strip runs the entire width of Lifuka Island and on the northern coastal approach, is Koulo village, home to 214 people. From the air most of its 37 homes now look like little piles of matchsticks, with a few intact roofs here and there. The extent of the devastation in Ha‘apai becomes immediately clear. 

Thousands of people in Ha‘apai have lost their homes and possessions, and few timber structures are left standing after Tropical Cyclone Ian's narrow Cat 5 centre inflicted wide-spread tornado-like destruction on the main town Pangai and Ha'apai's many small villages.

At Koulo, Mele‘ana and ‘Ana Kofe return to their home after the cyclone. 13 January 2014. Photo by Pesi Fonua.

At Koulo, Mele‘ana and ‘Ana Kofe return to their home after the cyclone. 13 January 2014.

The residents of Koulo told us that Ian's destructive winds came first from one direction, and then battered them again from the opposite direction, just like a tornado.

Today they began the daunting task of a massive clean-up operation.

There was no cleaning yesterday on Sunday. Communities sheltered in churches on Saturday afternoon and throughout the stormy night, into the Sabbath. Then with no homes to go home to, they spent all of Sunday in churches together.

The Town Officer of Foa said that after their prayers they made big umu there and everyone ate. He said It was not until after the umu that the minister looked at them sleeping around the altar and eating in the church. Since the weather was clearing up outside he told them in the evening that, sorry folks, from now on you can not eat in church.

When we found the Koulo families on Monday cleaning up their shattered properties, it was the first time most of them had gone back to see what had happened, and they thanked god that they were still alive.

Lifuka Island, Ha‘apai, Tonga. 13 January 2014. Photo by Pesi Fonua.

Lifuka Island, Ha‘apai. 13 January 2014.

Impact report

The first Ha‘apai Impact Analysis report was released today by the National Emergency Coordination Centre (NEMO) in Nuku’alofa, based on the RNZAF's aerial reconnaissance images from Sunday's fly-over by a RNZAF Orion. It shows that In Pangai the capital of Ha'apai on Lifuka Island, home to 1,239 people, some 75% of houses were demolished when the eye of Tropical Cyclone Ian Category 5, passed over Ha‘apai on Saturday, January 11.

The devastation to homes and buildings is widespread from the main island of Lifuka to the outer islands of Foa, Ha’ano, Mo'unga'one and 'Uiha.


Electricity is still off on the island, with unofficial estimates that 95 percent of the distribution network has come down. Clearing roads and fixing power lines is going to take some time.

Tonga Power Ltd. stated today it was currently working to repair and restore the power supply, with priority to the Niu'ui Hospital, which should have power and water back on by tomorrow.

Four linesmen were on the Digicel charter flight to Ha’apai this morning to assist in the restoration of power and to repair the damaged power lines and to start replace power poles.

Tonga Power was loading more cargo onto the ferries for Ha'apai today.

Two navy patrol boats arrived in Lifuka this morning and Tongan soldiers were busy cutting trees and clearing the roads this morning.

In Nuku'alofa there were long queues at the ferry cargo depot with families tyring to send goods and supplies over to relatives in Ha‘apai.

Tonga’s Prime Minister Lord Tu'ivakano flew to Ha‘apai with a delegation for a meeting this morning.

Households destroyed

The Ha‘apai Impact Analysis reported that 50% of the homes in Koulo were destroyed. Nearby, Holopeka lost 60% of its 27 households.

Not far away, on neighboring Foa Island, the village of Faleloa, home to 353 people, fared worse, with 70% of its 61 homes suffering major damage. 

Foa Island

Lotofoa village on Foa Island, home to 410 people had 50% of its 67 homes destroyed.

Fangale’ounga, population 174 in 30 households, had 50% of homes destroyed with 10-20% damaged.

Fotua home to 225 people had 15 % of households damaged and 15 percent destroyed.

Some 25 % of households were damaged at Ha‘afakahenga, pop. 102, 18 households; and Ha'ateiho Si'i, pop 105, 19 households.


In Fakakakai village in Ha’ano (Kauvai Ha'ano) a church and 13 houses were destroyed with 60% damaged.

Pukotala village home to 91 people 60% destroyed, 22 houses destroyed, 15 damaged with four houses said to be alright.

At Ha’ano village where 115 people live in 27 households, there was 75% major damage, including a church hall and primary school, 10 houses destroyed and 24 damaged while three are reported alright.

Muitoa where 37 people live in nine households 6% had major damage.

Mo'unga'one Island

On the island of Mo'unga'one, home to 92 people in 20 households 75% of the housing was destroyed.

‘Uiha Island

On 'Uiha village 415 people live in 78 households and around 10 households were damaged.

Felemea village, population of 137 had five houses were lightly damaged.

Lofanga Island six houses were damaged with 40 reported to be alright.

Right click here to download Tropical Cyclone Ian damage report (1.3MB pdf file) , courtesy of United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), January 15 2014.