Tonga takes stock after Gita devastation

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks inside one of the cyclone-hit classrooms at Fasi Government Primary School. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Tonga bore the brunt of Cyclone Gita, and New Zealand is among the nations lending a helping hand with the recovery. Sam Sachdeva reports from Nuku'alofa on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's visit and the additional assistance she has promised.

Manu Toa was sound asleep when the roof started to rip off his bedroom.

The 19-year-old from Long Beach, California had never experienced a cyclone before Gita hit his Tongan homeland.

"I hear my parents call my name, shouting, 'Manu, get downstairs' - Iwake up and my roof goes flying off ...

"They come upstairs, come get me, tell me to rush downstairs, then all the panels and everything started falling inwards in my house, my whole upstairs starts collapsing inward, I thought it was going to blow out because all the wind."

He spent the rest of the night trying to sleep on the kitchen floor, rising in the morning to see the aftermath through a purplish sky.

"It looked like something out of a movie, man. It looked like something out of a disaster movie."

He left his contract job in Tonga to help with disaster relief, and told Newsroom the country was doing its best to recover and get back to normal.

"The people I know, they're carrying about their everyday lives like nothing ever happened because that's how you have to go about it if you want to keep your sanity...do what humanity does best, rebuild."

'Worst storm in 60 years'

That's easier said than done: Gita was labelled the worst storm to hit Tonga in 60 years, with houses levelled, trees knocked over and thousands of residents left without power.

A shortage of vegetables on the island means they are being rationed, while a curfew is in place for the CBD as the cleanup continues.

Kiwi farmer and "hammerhand" Karl Stevens, who flew over to help the Red Cross in the wake of the storm, said Gita had left an unpredictable trail of damage.

"A lot of the buildings are say, 30, 40, 50, 60 years old, and a lot of the stuff that's blown away is predominantly decayed material, so the newer places have handled it or at least they've taken the full brunt of the twist.

"But it's quite amazing, you'll have like five shanties that have been blown down and it'll be the worst-looking one that's still standing right in the middle, and that just must be the nature of the cyclone."

Among the worst-affected buildings were the country's schools, with more than half suffering moderate or severe damage.

"The first thing we do [after Gita], we're going to pray in the morning and ask God, and the next day, God replied our prayers."

One of those badly hit, Fasi Government Primary School, was the site of a visit by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her New Zealand delegation.

Classroom roofs were ripped clean off, leaving exposed beams and remnants of children's artwork.

"The first thing we do [after Gita], we're going to pray in the morning and ask God, and the next day, God replied our prayers," school principal Pomana Hui said.

The relief came in the form of tents from Unicef and the New Zealand Government - and Ardern had more to offer.

After being cheered into the school, she handed over some reading supplies and in return received a stack of thank you cards from the children.

"To see it [a classroom] that devastated I can see would be really upsetting for the kids, particularly given they're still in the grounds, but you can see the efforts the teachers have made to put posters up and the children's work up."

"I can tell that you are already very very smart because your handwriting is better than mine," she said.

Labour MP Jenny Salesa had visited the country to check on her parents after Gita, and told Ardern she was most upset about what had happened to the schools.

That was in part the rationale for the announcement of an additional $7 million in aid for Tonga, although Ardern noted it would be up to the country's government to decide how it was spent.

At a women's leadership breakfast, Ardern heard about the impact of the cyclone on children's mental health and said it was something at the front of her mind.

"To see it [a classroom] that devastated I can see would be really upsetting for the kids, particularly given they're still in the grounds, but you can see the efforts the teachers have made to put posters up and the children's work up."

Getting the grid back in action

Then it was on to Pili village in Nuku'alofa, where Kiwi and Tongan lines workers have been teaming up to restore power to central residents.

Tonga's villages have already benefited from New Zealand aid to improve their networks, which Tonga Power chief executive Robert Matthews said was evident when it came time to assess the damage.

"We didn't have to go out and repair anything to those existing upgrades, whereas here [in Nuku'alofa] 45 percent of the network was totally flattened."

Matthews said Tonga Power needed $52m in funding to extend its upgrade project to the central area - and New Zealand has helped it get some of the way, with $11m in funding for the first stage of the upgrade.

"New Zealand has been a long-term partner in efforts to improve Nukualofa's electricity supply, and access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all is one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals," Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said.

It is the longer term that will also be the test for Tonga's recovery from Gita, as Stevens said he had been told by locals.

"Approximately a month from now, that's when they're going to be in trouble because all the stores are running out and they can't replant because it's the wet season or they don't have the knowledge to be able to do it, or not enough of them have the knowledge."