Just days after the volcanic eruption and tsunami in January, two Tonga Red Cross emergency responders, Amin Taumoefolau and Sione Pese, were selected for a rescue mission with the Tongan Navy to help evacuate islanders from Mango, Fonoi and Nomuka islands. These were people who had lost everything and needed to be taken to safety. This is Amin's story.
The National Emergency Management Office asked Red Cross for support in doing an initial assessment and emergency distribution of water, food and shelter.
The night we left by Tongan Navy boat for the islands I remember seeing the ash, the rubbish and the trees floating past. Some of the ships had to stop because the amount of debris in the ocean was making it dangerous to travel at night and clogging up the filters.
When we got to Nomuka, Sione went to the shore on a late (flat-bottomed landing craft) to check on our pre-positioned supplies of toolkits, tarps and jerry cans but they had all gone because they were needed.
We spent the night at sea. I remember noticing how the moon was shining on the sea. It was very moving somehow.
The next day we headed for Mango. As we drew closer, we could see the extent of the damage. All the structures that used to be there had been flattened; it looked like no-one had ever lived on the island. People were huddled on the beach. Luckily, Mango has a bit of a hill so the people had been able to escape up there.
But you could see the ash from the volcano covering the low-lying parts and smothering the water tanks and septic tanks.
Growing up with Red Cross as a part of my family I’m used to seeing damage and destruction. That’s why they use us. For a lot of the NEMO (National Emergency Management Office) responders, it would have been the first time they had seen scenes like this. At the back of my mind the Red Cross training kicks in – what do we need to do? Really, there’s no time to be scared. We have a job to do and we do the best we can.
Sione went on with another boat for a couple more days to help with assessments on the other islands while I stayed behind as some of us had to watch the supplies and make sure they were secure.
When Sione came back with the people from Mango Island, the children sang a farewell song to their home as they got off the small boat and on to the ship. All the people were feeling very sad. The kids asked: ‘When are we going back home?’
At such times, I’m reminded of the importance of my Red Cross Psychological First Aid training. It’s quite fortunate for us that we have these processes and that we know the right time to ask traumatised people the necessary questions to find out what they need and when is the right time to hold back and not be pushy, give evacuees time to process their feelings.
When we do initial disaster assessments, we introduce ourselves and ask: ‘How are you doing? Do you need shelter and water? Is it ok to take photos and ask questions?’
We listen and find out what people’s needs are. Many will want to talk about what they went through; you need to give them time to tell their story.
Amin has big plans for volunteers at Tonga Red Cross, and one of them is more skills training to relieve the workload of staff.
The 29-year-old recently stepped up to a new role as the volunteer coordinator at Tonga Red Cross, and he’s keen for the organisation to become a beacon for young people to join the cause:
We have a long way to go to build up numbers. This has been put on hold for now as we deal with Covid, so we are limited to a core team of volunteers.
For the current operation we have been using a mixture of about 80 old and new volunteers on Tongatapu (the main island), but we have more than 100 counting those on standby.
Due the Covid restrictions we are using a core team of eight covering all the areas such as kitchen/meals, admin, field operations, logistics and stocktaking. One of them is training as team leader and is slowly being given more responsibility.
One longstanding volunteer is Samantha Moala Cocker, who has been with us for a long time, since her Junior Red Cross days.
In regards to future numbers, due to operational needs we’ve recruited as needed but there is definitely a need for more trained volunteers, with the work being done by our Disaster Management Officer Marika Moala on disaster preparedness and Emergency Response training sessions.
The skill set of the volunteers has expanded through ongoing support of disaster preparedness, First Aid, emergency response, communications and logistics. We also have a clearer picture of how evolving operations will adjust to the need for volunteers.
Tonga Red Cross plans to use experienced volunteers as the point of contact with communities as they have established relationships. These volunteers understand Red Cross and what we are trying to do.
With the young people, we are bringing them into the volunteer system and will teach them the various skills, like data entry, tracking stock and acquittals.
We won’t forget our retired volunteers either. We have a network of people we can call on to help, such as when we need help with distributing non-food items. They know how we operate during a disaster.
Tonga Red Cross has been firm on using that model – it’s part of the culture – we connect with our counterparts from other organisations and civil society as we are all in it together.