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Support plan ‘a waiting game’

A view of Nomuka, 100km from Tongatapu, taken from a New Zealand surveillance flight on Monday. PHOTOS/NEW ZEALAND DEFENCE FORCE

Support waiting on clearer picture

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Air Movements personnel stack pallets of disaster relief supplies to be sent by Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules to Tonga.

As soon as they heard the first bang of the eruption on Saturday, Francis Muller’s family rang him on a video call.

Muller watched from his home in Masterton as his family made their way from the wharf in Nuku’alofato to the highest point on Tongatapu.

The call lasted about 20 minutes until the connection was lost.

“They were at the wharf having ice cream when they heard the first bang,” Muller said.

“They straightaway jumped in the car and rushed home to grab face masks and went to the highest point in Tonga [Mata ki ‘Eua] that mostly everyone went to.

“It went from clear day to pitch black because of the ash. My brother put his hand out of the car and then held it in front of the camera. It was full of ash.”

The family had just arrived at Mata ki ‘Eua when the call disconnected.

Muller, pictured at Rocky Lookout, has been unable to contact his family since the eruption. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Since then, Muller has been unable to contact any of his family in Tonga, including his mother and two siblings, as well as many uncles, aunties, and cousins.

Muller said that friends in New Zealand had been sending him messages of support and asking after his family every day.

“I just answer them the same thing, ‘I think they’re okay, but it’s a waiting game right now’.”

Pasifika Wairarapa Council chairman Luther Toloa said that since the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano on Saturday, many people in the region had expressed their desire to help people in Tonga recover.

However, Toloa said that the best thing people could do was wait until the true nature of the disaster became clear.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Toloa said.

“As much as we want to help Tonga get back on the road to recovery, the methods for that are being put out by the central government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The best advice, for the time being, is to wait until we get a better picture of what has happened, and from there, we can start mapping out the type of support that the people of Tonga need.”

Masterton resident Francis Muller was on a video call with his family in Tonga as they made their way to higher ground after the eruption.

He said that in response to previous disasters in the Pacific, people had donated items such as clothes. Although these were notable contributions, Toloa said the primary forms of help needed in the past were sanitation, clean water, and supplies for rebuilding infrastructure and plantations.

“At the end of the day, that’s what they rely on, rather than a container full of clothes.

“That’s not demeaning the effort and the goodwill of people; it’s just making sure the support they need is what they get.”

He said another lesson from the past was that the road to recovery would be a long haul.

Taro or banana plantations, for instance, could take years to become fully productive again.

Toloa said the best way people could help was through existing international agencies in the Pacific.

“They have the expertise, and in most cases, they have people on the ground who can provide that link to the outside world and know where the support is required.”

Muller agreed that people would be better served by waiting to assess the full extent of the damage.

“We don’t want to rush in and put in all these things that they don’t need and have them go to waste.”

Muller said the Tongan community in Wairarapa was very small, with most people only moving to the region within the past few years.

His brother put his hand out the window, and it filled with ash.

Muller had left Tonga for Wairarapa in 2015 to play rugby for Wairarapa-Bush. After returning briefly to Tonga in 2016, he had been in New Zealand ever since.

Although an injury had seen him out of play for some time, he said his club in Carterton had been very supportive since Saturday’s eruption.

“It’s still hard because I haven’t heard from anyone, because the communications are down,” Muller said.

“I’m just trying not to think about it too much.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Defence Minister Peeni Henare said on Tuesday that New Zealand was ready to help Tonga in its recovery.

However, images from a reconnaissance flight showed ashfall on the Nuku’alofa airport runway that would need to be cleared before a flight with humanitarian assistance could land.

In the meantime, two Royal New Zealand Navy ships departed New Zealand on Tuesday.

Henare said the HMNZS Wellington would carry hydrographic survey and diving teams, while the HMNZS Aotearoa would carry bulk water supplies and disaster relief stores.

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