“I thought there was a war happening”

A tsunami that swept over the Lauan island of Moce following a volcanic eruption in Tonga in January left villagers in wonder.

As Nasau villager Cama Uluilakeba said: “At first I thought there was a war happening when I heard the loud sound, then I saw the waves starting to form.”

Uluilakeba said it looked like two waves coming from opposite directions; then met in the middle and moved into the village. 

“This was the first time it has happened to us. We never thought this could ever happen to us because of the reef around the island, but it was like it formed inside the reef. It was scary to see,” he said.

Moce has two villages, Nasau and Korotolu. It is surrounded by a healthy reef, clear turquoise water, and a community that considers the sea to be a friend and relies on it for sustenance; that is, until the tsunami swept through the island following the eruption of the Hunga Tonga—Hunga Ha’apai volcano. That event left the people of Moce in a state of shock, fear, and wonder, as they struggled to make sense of what was happening around them.

An elderly man from Korotolu, Sefanaia Vuli, saw his kitchen completely destroyed by the tsunami. He said: “When I heard the loud booming sound, I thought it was thunder from the sky, but after the second loud ‘boom’ that was accompanied by a strong wind, I knew this was something else. 

“I have never seen the waters act in such a strange way as they did that day,” he said. 

Cama and Tagici Uluilakeba

The science explained

Waitt Institute science director, Andy Estepp, explained how the Moce tsunami formed inside the reef.

To understand how those tsunamis are formed, you have a back reef, a reef crest, and the water line. “As the waves are coming in, it will start piling up water and then it is going to break in the front, so you have all this energy of water piling up and pushing into the little space and breaking there,” he said.

“Anything that begins to reduce the depth of the water and force it into the narrow area is what is going to force it to break. That’s what makes it pile up and create a wave.” 

Estepp said the tsunami had a more complicated pathway. “What we want to do is look at the satellite imagery to understand the gradient of impact, water component, direct impact of the water, and the effects after the tsunami,” he said.

Michael Poland, a research geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, described the event as a confounding event.

“The volcanic-tsunami is a very rare occurrence, and this one is a relatively small one in that the amount of material that came out of the ground was not especially huge, but it caused a massive explosion,” he said.

“This could be from a large amount of gas-rich magma being suddenly exposed to cold ocean water and generating a really massive explosion that can be heard far away.”

The women’s story

While the sound of the volcanic eruption rattled the windows of houses on Moce, several witnesses say the devastating effects of the tsunami on their homes and livelihoods are something that they will never forget.

Tagici Uluilakeba recalled that day as a frightening experience for her and her children. “It was a traumatic experience for the kids and me. My husband was out, and I had to take on the role of making sure that we reached a safe place,” she said.

She returned to her home alone “because I wanted to make sure that our house was in the right condition for my family to come back to.”

Uluilakeba said: “When I entered, I was shocked at the amount of rubbish that was collected inside the house, so one of the first things I did was clean up the house to make sure that when my children come home they don’t see all the filth the tsunami brought with it.”

Some of the women remain fearful for the lives of their children, their husbands, their homes, and their possessions.

“To this day, every crash of the waves in the middle of the night or loud sound coming from the sea keeps me awake all night worried. It’s the same for the children. They wake up in a state of panic,” Uluilakeba said.

A situation report compiled by the headteacher and manager at Moce Secondary School states buildings were destroyed; four standalone kitchen structures were completely toppled, as well as six water tanks, fibre glass boats, and livelihoods affected.

Anaseini Kotoinadi, who was in her kitchen when the tsunami struck, didn’t know what was happening until she saw their fibre boat go past her kitchen.

Kotoinadi said: “I was seated in the kitchen cooking when I heard the loud sound. I asked my grandchildren, who were playing, ‘What was that?’ They said it was thunder, so I didn’t really bother until I saw our boat go past my door, and I was surprised to see the water coming into the village.

“I rushed to take one of the pots of food up to the houses that are situated higher and tried to come back for the other pot when I felt that our kitchen was shaking. The villagers were telling me to leave my items behind. As soon as I stepped out, my kitchen fell down from the strength of the wave. I struggled to get to higher ground after that,” she said.

Women scurried not only to get their children to dry ground, but also to get their elderly parents to safety.

A culture of resilience

After the water had subsided from the village, people discovered some of their belongings floating in the sea, or were greeted by the sight of rubbish in their homes.

“When I entered my house, it was like a pig sty,” Kotoinadi said. “It was filthy, all the rubbish was piled in the middle, all my electronic items were all damaged, and my kitchen was completely destroyed.”

Rubbish was strewn throughout the village, and as protocol dictates, the village heads announced a community clean-up campaign. In a traditional setting like the village, when the ‘Turaga’ or ‘Ramasi’ village head makes such a call, everyone must follow.

According to Rupeni Bulavou, a Moce Secondary School teacher, everyone answered the call. “We all helped clean up the village with different minority groups ranging from church youths, church members, associates, and visitation to the elderly and building houses,” he said.

Village elder, Cama Uluilakeba, said: “We couldn’t wait for the government to act; we had to do things ourselves. In the village, we have different protocols in place and when it comes to emergencies, it is just instinct to do what is needed to get everything back to normal. With the leadership of our Ramasi, we are able to do it all as one team.

“By the time the military or the government came, we had done everything, and the only things left were drinking water and other items that we didn’t have the resources to make,” he said.

The life in the iTaukei village is, at its core, one that is filled with care for one another, respect and love. This was clearly shown during this event, where other people in the village gave their homes to house others who were affected by the tsunami.

Kotoinadi said: “We stayed at another house for another week in order to properly clean up our house before moving back in; we helped them with cooking and food, but they let us stay until we could restore our home.”

This story echoes others’ experiences. In a natural disaster, the people mobilise and listen to what the chief elders decide. The men carry out the physical jobs around the village; the clean-up, the rebuilding of damaged property, clearing out debris, and the women clean the homes along with their children and prepare meals for the men.

While the people of Moce were resilient, there were other challenges that the tsunami caused after it left the Moce shores.

Challenges and recommendations

The tsunami led to sand erosion, challenges over proper disposal of rubbish, and water tank replacement. Training on the proper disposal of rubbish is required, and support to fund a proper incinerator and separate waste streams. An elderly woman, Losalini Raiyala, whose house is located next to the shoreline, explained what the villagers try to do in order to reduce sand erosion and stop the tides from coming in.

“You will see there are a few rocks on the sand and some rubbish out front,” she said. “The idea behind this is that when it is high tide, the waves wash the sand up and it can cover the rubbish and not wash the sand back into the sea.

“We use this to not only keep the sand but as a barrier for waves coming in due to the rise in sea level.”

The rocks that sat at the front of Korotolu were washed inland by the tsunami, and now the village uses them to barricade any waves coming in during high tide.

The Fiji National Disaster Risk Reduction 2018-2030 plan lays out a plan based on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

For example, the government is building seawalls in various parts of Fiji. Questions regarding whether a seawall would be built in Moce were sent to the Minister of Agriculture, Waterways and Environment, Dr. Mahendra Reddy.  

Reddy said: “They will need to inform our Ministry regarding the problem that they face and we will deploy our staff to examine the problem, survey and scope of work.”

According to the Minister, millions of dollars were spent to protect the vulnerable communities along the coast, and submissions are open all year around. “At the moment, we have 112 seawalls that need to be constructed which is awaiting funds for work to start; the coming year we expect to construct 15 seawalls so progressively we can help these villages,” he says.

The situation report recommends: relocation of those living close to the seashore due to the rise in sea level; the construction of village culverts and sea walls to stop king tides from entering the village and rising sea levels; the installation of proper water tanks that can withstand any weather patterns; and the construction of an evacuation centre on top of the hill to provide shelter in the event of natural disasters.

While the idea of relocation is uncomfortable for some who have lived there all their lives, the thought of reliving the tsunami experience have left others welcoming the idea. An elderly woman in Nasau, Losalini Tailasa, said: “We have lived here for long so moving can be difficult, but at our age I feel it’s better to move higher for the safety of our family because the water keeps rising.”

People living in remote parts of Fiji like Moce are left hoping that their recommendations are actioned for the safety of all in the island.    

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It appears in the latest issue of Islands Business.