For a few days before it hit Tonga, we heard warnings about cyclone Rene. On Saturday, in preparation for the storm, I helped pull the boats onto shore in my village. About 30 minutes later, the PCV security coordinator for Ha’apai called me.
“Hey Blair. What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing. I just helped get all the boats out of the water for the cyclone.”
“Yeah, we’re gonna need you to get on a boat and come into Pangai. Peace Corps is having us consolidate.”
Since the boats in Ha’ano were just put ashore, I found a boat in another village, and I came into the main town.
Peace Corps Tonga’s default consolidation point for any emergency is the local Mormon church. They’re built to Western standards and thus more likely to be structurally sound. Fortunately, our Ha’apai security coordinator changed our location to his house a few weeks ago. That way, we would have access to a shower, beds, and a kitchen. That’s very lucky, since we spent the next 62 hours there.
Ten of us – 9 PCVs and a JICA volunteer – fit into a house about the size of a double portable building. We got together on Saturday afternoon under blue skies, but the wind started to pick up that evening.
Since there’s not television, internet is sporadic on the sunniest days much less during natural disasters, and the Sunday’s radio programming is limited to church services, we severely lacked news on the cyclone. Peace Corps Headquarters called with a regular update. Most updates were: The cyclone will hit in 2 hours. (An hour later…) The cyclone will hit 6 hours from now. (Two hours later…) The cyclone will hit tomorrow. (Etc.)
The wind and rain really began on Sunday and continued on through Monday when the cyclone actually hit. We made preparations on the house as best as possible. We put a tarp up on the inside of the windows and stockpiled water.
There was one weaker spot on the house though, the door. It was made of two thin pieces of plywood separated by corrugated cardboard strips. We should have known this could prove problematic. At one point one side of the lower half of the door came off, but we screwed it back onto the doorframe. With the humidity, the door didn’t close properly, so we tied it shut (with a small crack left) with a rope that was known to break holding up laundry.
As the storm hit us from the front of the house, the rain blew in through the louvered windows (a genius idea for a hurricane-prone country). We originally put the tarp on the inside of the windows, catching the water and funneling it into buckets. The porous tarp proved a poor blocker of the rain, and the house soon started taking in water.
We used towels to soak up the water, but it was a losing battle.
Not long after, the bottom half of the door ripped off. The first piece blew across the yard, and the PCV whose house it was noted, “Oh, there goes part of my door.” Soon, the whole bottom half was gone, leaving us with a horribly inappropriate, though eternally trendy, saloon-style door. We propped a table up as we scrambled for a sufficient door. What would be better: the headboard or the shed door? After reason set in, we took the kitchen door off and screwed it onto the hinges. Easier said than done in 145-mph winds, but our burly boys worked against the storm to chisel and screw the door into the frame. As half the crew worked on the door and the other half frantically fought the flood in the house, a Tongan eating a stick of sugar cane meandered over to check out the situation. He casually observed the palangi handiwork as the trees behind him blew horizontally. Eventually the door went up, we went home, and the Tongan sauntered home. Or for a stroll through town.
At one point, we needed to go outside, but as we tried to open the newly-fitted door, we realized it was backwards. Instead of locking people out, we were locked in.
We eventually unlocked the door from the outside, and we began sweeping out water. In a stroke of genius, the tarp was put on the outside of the windows, though it was done during the brunt of the storm. We finally had some control. The eye of the storm came by, and we re-analyzed our defenses. We were ready to move tarps around, and we nailed plastic mats on the windows, though we never got to see how well they would have fared. The second side of the storm was much lighter – “gale force winds,” the Peace Corps called them.
We lasted three full nights in the house together. We lost electricity and water on Sunday, but they both came on in various parts of town today. This morning, Tuesday, the Peace Corps gave us the all-clear to leave. As we headed home, we saw huge trees uprooted, sunken boats, and collapsed houses. I’m still in Pangai, since the seas are too rough to travel by boat. I’m waiting for the all-clear from the Peace Corps…