Tongan Volcano Survivors Face a Very Uphill Future

Geoff Wols /

Mango Island in Tonga was one the closest and hardest hit by the volcanic eruption in the south Pacific on January 15th. While five weeks have passed since that fateful day, the kids and many adults are still having trouble adjusting to their new lives in the Tonga capital. Much like someone freshly home from war, a thunderclap or loud noise sends them flying for the floor or under a table.

The explosions that day were some of the most intense ever experienced on the planet. With a sonic boom so large and powerful that it was heard in Alaska, and a mushroom cloud so tall and thick it was seen in images from space. No home on the tiny island was spared, but somehow 62 lives were able to be saved even as the house-destroying tsunami ripped across the island before reaching Peru.

Speaking to the Associated Press through a translator with the Tonga Red Cross, Sione Vailea, 52 explained how they were saved by the high hill on the tiny island. “There was no sign that there was going to be a tsunami, but our gut feeling was we needed to get up to the top, because we weren’t sure what was happening.”

As Vailea climbed up, he turned back down and saw the wife, two daughters, and the son of a 65-year-old man on the way up. Unfortunately, the man was one of the victims taken by the sea. “He was the first victim of the tsunami. Because he died right then, as they were trying to get up to the top of the island.” Another two people lost their lives elsewhere on the island, including a British national and a fourth eventually died from the trauma the tsunami caused.

When the sun rose, the damage was incredible. As the residents sifted through the remains, they came upon two bags of rice to feed the children. The adults went without that night and the next day. Also, in the rubble, they were able to source a small shovel and ax. This allowed them to give the dead a proper burial. Given the rock three feet below the surface, and the exhaustion the tsunami had caused, this task took an entire day.

On Tuesday, a neighboring island came to check on them. They brought some cassava, a root vegetable, and a bunch of plantains. For the survivors, this meal was not usually very tasty, but on that night, it was exactly what they needed. The next day the island of Nomuka welcomed them for a few days before being relocated again to the capital of Nuku’alofa.

So far, the survivors have been unable to return to Mango Island. A COVID outbreak had reached the island, likely brought from foreign military crews delivering aid to the nation. As a result, they were in lockdown until February 20. As great as being out of lockdown is for them, the uncertainty of what they will do and where they will go is one of the worst parts.

Another survivor, 72-year-old Sulaki Kafoika, who goes by the name Halapaini — or talking chief — a title bestowed upon him by Tonga’s King Tupou VI, has been in frequent meetings with the king. Ultimately King Tupou VI has the final say about them returning to the island. For many, life on the island is all they have ever known.

Many are looking forward to returning to the island, while others are looking forward to a new life in Nuku’alofa or someplace else. To many, the simple life of waking up, fishing, and sharing your catch with the village as everyone works together to enjoy life together is their perfect slice of happiness. The hustle and bustle that comes with living in the capital isn’t for them. They yearn for that simple life, even if it means increased risk from the unpredictable volcano.