“What happened on January 15 2022 was 1000x more scary than other disasters we’ve experienced. I am not easily scared, I am a strong woman, a leader but what happened on that day really tested our level of resilience,” says Vanessa Heleta, Executive Director and Founder of the Talitha Project, a Tongan women’s rights organisation.
The disaster has impacted 84,000 people – 80% of Tonga’s population and caused enormous ripple effects across the region with major ashfall and a devastating tsunami. With shockwaves felt as far away as the east coast of Australia and west coast of the USA, the eruption was the biggest the world has seen in 30 years.
When the eruption occurred, Vanessa told her daughter and niece to grab food, water and clothes, and head straight to her van.
“I was at home after 5pm. I was thinking of going and visiting a friend’s house…Then all of a sudden there was a big bang, I could see steam and ash clouds coming out of the sea…then I started to see big waves…I said to my daughter and 9-year-old niece run, grab whatever you can…our next door neighbour, a 63 year old women with two young grandchild, was calling me say ‘can we come, can we come with you’ and I said ‘yes, yes’. We then drove up to go inland to find the highest point.”
As Vanessa was driving molten rocks began to fall, cars became covered with thick layers of ash.
“We started having rain of molten rocks, then it became very dark. We were so scared. Then all of a sudden, the ash started coming down and covered the windshield…Everyone was panicking and people didn’t know where to go,” says Vanessa.
“The next day when we woke up, the whole country was in black, everything was covered in black ash. This is the first time we have experienced anything like this.”
Since the disaster, Vanessa and her team at the Talitha Project have been providing emergency assistance, including water, masks, and clothing, to girls involved in their programs in the villages of Kanokupolu and Haau as well as to families in evacuation centres on Tongatapu Island.
Women trained as emergency first responders in Tonga through the Talitha Project’s partnership with the Shifting the Power Coalition and ActionAid mobilised rapidly to distribute clean water to their communities after water sources were polluted by the volcanic eruption and tsunami.
“Water is our biggest priority along with food, toilet paper and dignity kits. Water and masks need to be distributed especially to children and young people,” Vanessa says.
The psychological impact of the eruption will be long lasting, says Vanessa. Her team have provided psychosocial support for 95 children and adolescent girls who have been evacuated with their parents from Atata Island.
“We are thankful to be alive, but there is a long way to recover. Everyone is still in shock. We shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic, but now we need assistance.”