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Shepparton reverend desperate to return to Tonga following volcano disaster

Thinking of home: Shepparton Uniting Church Reverend Loni Vaitohi is feeling the devastation of his homeland Tonga, which has been ravaged by a volcanic eruption and ensuing tsunami. Photo by Anna McGuinness

Shepparton’s Tongan community has been rallying together as they wait for reports from the archipelago in the days after a devastating volcanic eruption.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on January 15, blanketing parts of the country with ash and smoke and triggering a damaging tsunami.

Three people died, homes were destroyed and communication was initially cut off.

Shepparton Uniting Church Reverend Loni Vaitohi grew up in Tonga and has a brother and sister still living there.

Although he hasn’t been able to make direct contact, he has confirmed his siblings are okay.

“One of the mobile companies in Tonga has managed to open up some communication but you can imagine everyone from America to New Zealand are all wanting to get in at the same time,” he said.

“It’s sort of clogged the system.”

He said the loss of property was huge and has concerns for the home he grew up in and still owns in Tonga.

“People seem to be very positive; thankful they are alive,” he said.

“The agriculture is destroyed, so food shortages and water will be the main issues I think in the weeks to come.

“Most of our ancestors — our parents, grandparents — are buried at the beaches so there’s a lot of concern about whether they are still there.”

Recovery: Volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in Tonga on January 17. Photo: CPL Vanessa Parker/New Zealand Defense Force via AP Photo by CPL Vanessa Parker

Rev Vaitohi said about half of the Tongan nationals in City of Greater Shepparton were temporary workers on farms and community members were checking in with each other.

He’s hoping to get back to Tonga as soon as possible to check on his parents’ graves and his house.

“The challenge is Tonga is still COVID free and they’re very selective about flights,” he said.

This has been one of the issues considered in the humanitarian effort, with the risk of COVID-19 outbreak in a country reeling from a natural disaster.

On January 20, essential supplies from Australia arrived in Tonga, including shelter materials, hygiene supplies, PPE for people clearing ash and water containers, and communication equipment.

HMAS Adelaide was also preparing to deploy to Tonga with additional humanitarian and medical supplies, engineering equipment and helicopters to support logistics and distribution.

“The Uniting Church here will be assisting one particular village in Tonga which was hardest hit, I think they lost 21 houses and the rest are under dust and water,” Rev Vaitohi said.

“We are waiting for trustworthy details about the damage and how we can send money or a container with food and water.

“At this time I think the best is monetary donations via UnitingWorld, Red Cross or Act for Peace.

“Thank you to the local people for their concerns, their prayers and encouragement, through letters and emails.”

To donate through UnitingWorld visit donate.unitingworld.org.au/tonga