Tonga, the Pacific nation that was hit by a powerful tsunami last weekend, consists of about 170 islands, some tiny, spanning 270,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of the Texas.
The vast majority is uninhabited. Seventy percent of Tonga’s roughly 100,000 people live on the largest, Tongatapu, a center of tourism and commerce, while the rest are scattered across around 35 islands – some home to just a few dozen families, appearing on the maps of the world as little more than freckles of land in a seemingly endless sea.
The remoteness of these islands has protected a relatively simple way of life, in a seemingly perfect tropical paradise: blue skies, crystal clear waters and groves of emerald palms giving way to sandy beaches. But the devastating January 15 tsunami, caused by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano, caused catastrophic damage to three of them.
“The houses have been completely destroyed,” said Katie Greenwood, spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Fiji, of the three islands, Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua. “It’s heartbreaking and devastating for these isolated island communities.”
As of Saturday, only three tsunami deaths had been confirmed in Tonga. Because the disaster damaged an undersea cable, communications were limited and the extent of the damage is still unclear.
But Ms Greenwood said Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua were buffeted by waves nearly 50ft high, compared to waves of just fourft in Tongatapu. On Mango, deposits of brown and gray ash now cover the entire island, and the settlement, which once included a school and a simple red-roofed church, appears to have been swept away, according to a United Nations analysis.
There are only two houses left on Fonoifua. And Nomuka, which is larger and has 500 inhabitants, suffered extensive damage. It is by far the hardest hit of all of Tonga’s inhabited islands, many of which suffered only superficial damage and heavy ashfall.
All three are part of the Ha’apai group of five dozen coral and volcanic islands, a journey of more than eight hours by ferry from Tongatapu. Mango is about 43 miles from the volcano itself.
The tsunami is known to have killed one person on Mango and another on Nomuka, as well as a British woman on Tongatapu who was swept away as she tried to save her dogs. The Tongan government evacuated all residents of Mango to Nomuka, but residents of Fonoifua chose to stay, said Dr Yutaro Setoya, World Health Organization representative in Tonga.
“We have deployed our emergency medical team to go to Nomuka,” he said by phone from Tongatapu. “From what I hear from them, almost half of the accommodation was taken away, including the health facility, so they set up a temporary clinic in one of the churches.”
The islands now face considerable challenges, Dr Setoya said. “Of course there is ash all over Nomuka as the wind was blowing in that direction which contaminated the water sources,” he said. “Drinking water and food are becoming a problem there.”
Koniseti Liutai, the vice president of the Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce in Sydney, is among those awaiting news of relatives in Ha’apai.
“It will set a lot of people back,” he said. “We know that entire islands have been wiped out. People are struggling to get by every day, and now they have to try to rebuild a house.
Lynne Dorning Sands, a former teacher who traveled the world on a catamaran with her husband, Eric, visited Nomuka and Mango in 2016.
“It was truly a special experience,” Ms Dorning Sands, who said she was in the waters off the Philippines, said in a post. She recalled children going out to meet their boat at Nomuka, pigs roaming free on Mango and seeing whales every day.
“At one point we had whales all around the boat,” Ms Dorning Sands said. “We were so careful not to hit them, because they were everywhere!”
In Mango, where around 35 people lived before the tsunami, Ms Dorning Sands visited the school: a single building, brightly decorated with student work and with a reading corner. There she met the school’s 13 students, aged 3 to 13, and her only teacher, who introduced himself as John.
“When we asked if they had a store on the island, he said, ‘We have everything we need here. We don’t need a store. We can grow our food, we have pigs and we catch fish,” she said. “For anything else, they can go to another island.”
Mote Pahulu, who was born in Nomuka and grew up in Mango, told New Zealand news outlet Newshub that the woman killed in Mango was married to one of her cousins.
“We are absolutely devastated. Not only have we lost a relative, a very close relative, but everything else on the tiny island is gone,” said Mr Pahulu, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. “It was a beautiful little island, it was a little paradise.”
Yan Zhuang contributed report.