WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – Samantha Moala remembers taking a shower at her home in Tonga when she heard what sounded like a shot so loud that it hurt her ears.
As she and her family crawled to their car to drive into the country, the ash blackened the sky. The world’s largest volcanic eruption in 30 years sent a tsunami around the globe, and the first waves washed over the road as Moala drove to safety at the airport with her terrified husband and two sons.
A Tonga Red Cross volunteer, Moala, 39, soon took care of the cuts other people had suffered as they fled, giving them psychological support. She said about 50 of them stayed for two days at the airport until they got it quite clear to go home again.
“People were all shocked,” she said. “But I had to mingle with them, help them, make them confident. It’s a tiny little island, and we got to know each other in two hours.”
Three months after the eruption, Tonga’s reconstruction is slowly progressing, and the consequences of the disaster has come into clearer focus. Last week, the prime minister handed over the keys to the first rebuilt home of the 468 that the government plans to reconstruct across three islands as part of its recovery program.
About 3,000 people whose homes were destroyed or damaged originally sought shelter in town halls or evacuation centers. Eighty percent of Tonga’s population was affected in some way.
For the first few weeks after the outbreak, Moala helped by setting up tents and tarpaulins and then by cooking for other volunteers.
It took five long weeks for Tonga to re-establish its internet connection to the rest of the world after the tsunami, a crucial fiber optic cable cut off. It delayed some families from abroad from being able to send financial aid to their loved ones.
Three people in Tonga died from the tsunami and a fourth from what authorities described as related trauma. The sonic boom of the eruption was so loud that it could be heard in Alaska, and a mushroom of ash shot a record 58 kilometers (36 miles) into the sky.
The World Bank estimates that the total bill for the damage is around $ 90 million. In the small island nation of 105,000 people, this corresponds to more than 18% of the gross domestic product.
The bank noted that many coastal tourism companies – which bring vital foreign revenue to Tonga – were particularly hard hit, with tourist cabins and quays destroyed. The agricultural industry also suffered a bit, with crops lost and reef fishing damaged.
ANZ Bank says Tonga’s GDP is likely to fall by 7.4% this year after it was expected to grow by 3.7% before the volcano erupted.
The international community has helped, with Tonga being able to secure $ 8 million in funding from the World Bank and $ 10 million from the Asian Development Bank, as well as assistance from many places, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the EU, the US and China.
But progress has been hampered by the nation’s first outbreak of COVID-19, which was probably brought in by foreign military crews who ran to hand over supplies when the ashes cleared up. The eruption led to a series of lockdowns and the country remains in a state of emergency.
Moala is among the more than 8,500 Tongans who have caught the coronavirus since it began spreading through the islands. Eleven people have so far died. Moala said the outbreak had affected many businesses, including her husband’s work as a tattoo artist.
But as the eruption ebbs and reconstruction progresses, the islands’ familiar rhythms return to many people.
Among those still hardest hit are the 62 people who lived on Mango Island and about 100 more on Atata Island who may never be able to return home.
The islands are very close to the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano and the villages were completely wiped out. Residents have now been offered land by the King of Tonga to move to one of Tonga’s two main islands.
Sione Taumoefolau, general secretary of the Tonga Red Cross Society, said there is a lot of work to be done to relocate the residents.
Getting supplies to people on other remote islands has also been slow, he said. Many of them remain without Internet access after a domestic fiber optic cable was also damaged and is unlikely to be repaired for several months.
“Three months later, people are starting to get back to normal,” Taumoefolau said. “But we can see that they still need psychological and social support, those who were really affected, especially those who have to move.”