…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

“Is this going to interfere with my 5pm skype date?” (AKA Cyclone Rene 2010)

During training, Peace Corps does a good job at preparing us for the worst possible situations we may face as volunteers. One of the things we go over again and again is the “Emergency Action Plan” (EAP). The four stages of the EAP are stand fast (stay at your site, no traveling), consolidate (bring everyone in your island group to the consolidation point), evacuate (leave your island) and all clear (you are free to go home). While we all studied and understood what each of these stages meant, we were told that consolidation rarely happens (hasn’t happened here since 2006). When we heard that a cyclone was on its way, not in my wildest dreams did I expect what later ensued.

SATURDAY, 2/13
3:00pm Call comes from Todd (our emergency coordinator); all Ha’apai PCV’s are to report to our consolidation point.
At this point, none of us on Ha’apai had ever had to consolidate before. We were told by the Safety and Security Coordinator at the Peace Corps office that the cyclone was a category 3, headed straight for Tonga and that it would be hitting very early morning on Sunday. It was a bright and sunny Saturday, you wouldn’t know by looking at the sky that a cyclone was coming.
5:00pm All 10 volunteers are accounted for at Todd’s.

I had grabbed enough clothes for 3 days, my computer and hard drive (knowing there would be lots of time for movies), Into Thin Air, bible, journal, toiletries, some snacks from my latest package, some candles and my lantern, 3 bottles of water and I loaded my phone up with credit. Everyone’s spirits were high; Blair and Sarah had made it in from the outer islands. I had put all of my things into a cab with the other’s stuff and walked over to Todd’s while talking to Caitlin. I also had a skype date scheduled with Mary and her kids. I was actually more worried about missing that date than getting ready for the cyclone! (I did get to have that skype date with the internet at Todd’s!) The internet was working for a few hours; we lost it at around8:30pm.
We ate dinner and went to bed. All of this time, we were receiving phone calls from our office in Nuku’alofa with updates. The storm was very slow moving. We had expected it early Sunday morning. We had sleeping bags, mats and air mattresses strewn about the house. Sleeping was just fine on Saturday night.

SUNDAY, 2/14

10:00am Storm proofing and reorganizing begins.
We are all waiting patiently for the storm. Having never been in a cyclone, none of us knew exactly what to expect. We had heard that it was a category 3-4 storm, with winds from 150-200 MPH. Our cell service was still working so I was keeping up with the volunteers in Vava’u. The storm would hit them first, coming from the North East. It was actually still sunny at this point in both Vava’u and Ha’apai, this made it hard to brace for the worst. It would drizzle off and on, but for the most part, it was clear.
2:00pm Lunch time
It wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t tell you about the food! Alyssa made us cilantro burgers with homemade buns and french fries! Ifo! Still no cyclone. PC is calling, telling us it will now be here at 6pm.
4:00pm Taping windows and tarp goes up
We decide that since there are so many window panes (opportunities for water to come in), we will use the cardboard from some boxes to seal the windows. We get a call saying that this is a strong category 4 storm. We also put the tarp up over the main windows in Todd’s living room. We put it inside thinking that if it’s outside, it will be ripped off. It takes us some time to figure it out, but it gets up. Windows all over the house are layered with cardboard and shut. Koichi joins us (JICA volunteer).
5:00pm Dr. Who, West Wing and Law & Order SVU viewings (no cyclone)
6:00pm No Cyclone
9:00pm Dinner (eggplant parm) & no cyclone
10:00pm Electricity goes out (so does running water)
11:30pm “Twister” viewing (very apropos) and……No Cyclone!
1:00am All are in bed.
It was not easy to sleep. We had been told by PC that it would come early morning on Monday at this point. They continued to call us throughout the night. The wind had picked up and the bushes were hitting the side of the house in the room I was in. The wind whipped across the house and it was so hot because all of our windows were closed, it was a rough night.
4:00am PC calls, Cyclone Rene has hit neighboring island Vava’u

Todd takes the call from Peace Corps; we now know the cyclone is close. We stay in bed until around 6am and then put the finishing touches on the house. (Oatmeal and hazelnut coffee for breakfast…I even drank it black!)
6:00am Koichi wakes up soaking wet
It has begun.
9:00am All mats/bag/belongings cleared out of living room
The rain is now coming into the house because of the windows and high winds. We decided to move all of our things into Todd’s bedroom to keep everything dry (“dry” nothing is ever completely dry in Tonga).
10:00am Tarp needs to be fixed
The tarp is brining too much water into the house and it’s filling the front room up. John does a good job trying to rig it so that we can funnel the water into buckets. It works for a little while but the water is coming in too fast. We have buckets, mops, dust pans and brooms to get the water out. We open the front door and are now trying to get the water out as fast as we can. Grant is against the bedroom wall protecting that seal (so that we don’t get water in that room). Everyone is pitching in, just trying to get the water out.
10:10am Table placed in front of the door
We notice that the front door is not going to stay closed. We put the table in front of it in case it blows open. At this point we are on the floor in the living room trying to get as much water up as possible.
10:30am Cardboard in the bedroom
We are afraid that our “dry room” is going to be compromised. We set up tarps and add cardboard and duct tape to the windows.
10:50am Bottom of front door rips off
This is now pretty serious, the guys to a great job taking the door off, getting the kitchen door and putting that on the front door. Note: at this critical juncture, Villiami walks over from down the street (I work with him at the govs office) just to see what we are doing. We are smiling, but the winds are VERY strong. He chatted for a while as the guys were putting the door up. We just thought it was funny that he wasn’t at HIS house doing the same things we were.
11:00am New tarp strategy and give up on the kitchen
Too much water is coming into the house. We decide to take the tarp outside. People are on top of other people’s shoulders to get the tarp nailed above the windows. I couldn’t take a picture of this because the winds were so strong and the water was still flowing into the house. Also, the living room was filling so quickly that we decided to give up on the kitchen and let the water come in.
11:15am Rain stops, eye of the storm?
While putting our second tarp outside, the rain stops and the winds die down. We are unsure if this is the eye of the storm or just a break. We have been told that it’s only a break. We are all so tired from bailing water, we all need a rest. We take a few minutes then try to get the remaining water out of the living room. We go back into the kitchen and bail all of the water from there, sweep the hall ways and secure the tarps and add mats to the outside side windows.
12:00pm Is this the end?
Cell phone service is back up. I text the volunteers in Vava’u, they say it should be over. PC calls and says that’s only round one, round two is on its way.
1:00pm Round 2?
Winds pick up but rain stays away. We are exhausted and soaking wet. Water bubbles start to form on the ceiling.
3:00pm Cyclone is over
The wind is still strong, we don’t have electricity or running water, but the cyclone seems to have passed us.
The rest of the night, we continue to mop and clean. The house is musty but most of the water is out. We eat dinner and retire to separate rooms to relax and debrief the day. Peace Corps says to hang in there through one more night. We are ready to be done with this thing. One more night together.
TUESDAY 2/16
6am Todd gets the “All Clear” call
We are released to go home. But, the house is still in shambles. We take everything outside, sweep, mop and scrub almost every inch of the house. We get home around 1. Remember that each of us has our own homes to clean now.
The nuns were so kind to put boards on my windows and towels on my floors. I had very little water come into my rooms, no damage done. I still don’t have electricity or running water, probably won’t have it until Thursday. Our office was also a disaster. We spent the rest of the afternoon pulling carpet out of there. It’s been a very long few days. I will say though, I was impressed by almost every single person in our group of 10. We all pitched in and got it done. In the end, I think we had a successful first cyclone experience. But I am glad it’s over and I am glad to be sleeping in my own bed.

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2 Comments»

  Kate wrote @

So glad to hear you’re all okay and made it through the storm! Great blog!

  Kristiana wrote @

yup. you’re my hero.


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