“Tonga Cyclone Brings Destruction, Strengthens Faith,” Ensign, May 1982, 111–12
The Tongans have a word for the wind-and-water maelstrom that slammed into their chain of islands just about two months ago—afa. Comparable to a major hurricane or cyclone, the fierce tropical storm pummeled many of the islands with 172-mile-per-hour winds and surging tidal waves on March 2.
Cyclone Isaac, as it was named, raged in a southwesterly direction through the three main island groups of Tonga. Hardest hit was the Ha‘apai group, where more than 90 percent of the people’s homes were leveled. It was the worst cyclone in nearly half a century.
There are over twenty-thousand members of the Church in Tonga, making approximately one in five Tongans a Latter-day Saint. Within hours of Isaac’s departure, the status of Saints on the large island of Tongatapu had been determined. Word came from the Vava‘u and Ha‘apai island groups within a few days. No Latter-day Saints died in the storm, although some were injured. (Miraculously, only six of Tonga’s 100,000 population lost their lives in the disaster.) And Church members—even those who had lost everything but the clothes they were wearing—expressed gratitude for Heavenly Father’s protecting influence.
Several of the islands were totally devastated. On them, few buildings were left standing. Elder John H. Groberg of the First Quorum of the Seventy, who had earlier served as a missionary and a mission president in Tonga, toured the islands on special assignment from the First Presidency. “Great damage was done to public buildings, schools, churches, and houses,” he reported. Our members’ houses suffered along with the rest of the population; but our chapels just stood out like beacons—and did not fall. Some were damaged, some had roofs ripped off; but none was leveled.” Between twenty and thirty LDS chapels were directly in the path of the storm. “Nearly all of the population of some villages took refuge in our chapels, as they were the only buildings left standing. Our temple site and our schools received very minor damage.”
The Church has moved immediately to provide the stricken Saints with food, clothing, and housing materials. Flour, rice, sugar, canned beef, and fish have been shipped from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, and Samoa; clothing from Deseret Industries will meet the needs of some 4,000 members who were left destitute in the wake of the storm. Tents and building materials have also been made available; and, said Elder Groberg, “The people down there are working very hard to help themselves. I’m really proud of the priesthood leaders and the way they have organized. Even the government is looking to them now. They’re already helping each other to rebuild their homes.” Church members and nonmembers alike, he said, are sharing supplies and helping one another.
Elder Groberg visited with the King of Tonga, who was very pleased with the Church’s concern for Tonga and its willingness to help.
Tonga Nuku‘alofa Mission President Pita Hopoate, his wife Lani, and their six children (ages four months to eight years) had a narrow brush with personal tragedy during the storm’s fury. Their mission home at Sopu is located near the sea in one of the hardest-hit areas of Tongatapu, and was severely damaged by the fierce tidal wave.
Sister Hopoate recorded the day’s events in her journal. She described her initial terror as the sea began rising around their home; then, “Suddenly I heard the back door burst open and knew the ocean had come into the house.”
The president, his family, and a group of sister missionaries took refuge atop a water tank in the garage; their oldest son had been injured by a flying piece of glass, a three-year-old daughter nearly drowned when the surging water separated her from the main group. Safe for the moment with her family atop the water tank, Sister Hopoate recorded that she “changed the children into dry clothes and made them lie down and keep warm.”
“President kept watching the ocean rise and come in ’till it was only two inches below the window sill and the wind still strong when we gathered together again for our last prayer, leaving our lives in God’s hands,” she reported. “After the prayer, I felt calm and did not pay attention to the water rising.
“After a while, President opened the door and we witnessed God’s blessing upon us as the water was gone and nothing but gravel was left outside.”
The Hopoates have taken temporary residence in the mission office.
Elder Groberg described the general feeling of Church members in Tonga as one of faith, acceptance, optimism, and gratitude for the preservation of their lives. “We can learn from the faith of those people,” he said. “Their attitude is basically this, as they have expressed it: ‘It’s our hurricane, let us get the blessings from it. The Lord sent it to us for a purpose, and we’ll just live with it.’ Some of them, of course, are pretty discouraged. But generally they’re determined to make it a positive experience.”
Elder and Sister Anthony B. Balukoff from San Diego, California, are welfare missionaries to Tonga and serve as the mission center couple. Sister Balukoff commented on the same faith and determination as she wrote, a few days following the storm: “After viewing the damage we feel it is a miracle that our lives and all our Church buildings are spared. We marvel at the smiles on the beautiful Tongan faces and thrill to the sounds of hammers putting the world together again. By Sunday afternoon [March 7] when we were again in the Hihifo area, the yards were spotlessly clean of every broken tree and fallen leaf, salvaged building parts and interiors were neatly piled or drying on fences or stubs of trees, and the people were observing the Sabbath day as is their custom and the law of their land. … We love these people even more after watching their courage in the face of disaster.”
Scene of general devastation at Pangai, Ha‘apai, Tonga—one of the areas hardest hit by cyclone.