For a week in January this year, Canberra Liberals MLA Elizabeth Kikkert was unable to do anything but worry, weep and wait for news of her family in her homeland of Tonga after the devastating effects of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai eruption and tsunami.
While it was good news in the end – all of her family were safe – Ms Kikkert, who is believed to be Australia’s first Tongan-Australian MP – said it was a week of heartbreak and pain that she will never forget.
“It was the worst week of my life and I just couldn’t focus on anything else,” Ms Kikkert said.
“You don’t know if they are alive or hanging on to a coconut tree for dear life or floating in the ocean on a piece of debris.”
The fact that Ms Kikkert hasn’t seen much of her extended family in Tonga since the beginning of the pandemic only made this worse.
“Thankfully, [my dad] is safe and most of his community and neighbourhood is as well, but there is a lot of damage to infrastructure and homes and roads,” she said.
Now, she’s calling on Canberrans to keep an eye out for upcoming community events organised by the local Tongan community which is rallying behind those who are dealing with the impacts of the eruption and tsunami, as well as a wave of COVID-19 cases likely brought to the island by foreigners delivering aid.
The Australian Government, along with the governments of China, France, Japan and New Zealand, was quick to act, as were many local Canberrans who donated money and items to disaster relief.
Many Tongans had to be locked down in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases, which has hampered relief efforts.
“That has made a huge impact as to what can be done – especially with giving necessary supplies to the outer islands,” Ms Kikkert explained.
In the aftermath of this explosion, communications with the small Pacific nation were severed entirely.
“We just kept on going back and forth to see if the government had said anything and hoping and praying that everyone was okay,” Ms Kikkert explained.
She’s since learned of the mammoth task to clean up the thick volcanic ash that blanketed homes and roads and made it hard to breathe.
“From what I’ve seen in the most recent aerial footage – you could see lush green grass and coconut trees again,” Ms Kikkert said.
Food is also in short supply. For obvious reasons, many crops were ruined and the Tongan Government also imposed a ban on fishing due to concerns about contaminated stocks.
On the first sitting day of the ACT Legislative Assembly this year, Ms Kikkert delivered a message of love and sympathy to the people of Tonga in her mother tongue.
Now, all around Australia, Tongan communities are doing what they can to fundraise for short-term and long-term support.
Earlier this month, the Wests Rugby Club in Belconnen hosted a fundraising event, ‘Touch Footy for Tonga’.
“Everything that was sold at their barbecue and canteen was donated to the Tongan community to purchase items like wheelbarrows, tools and medical supplies.
Ms Kikkert said it’s the outer islands that will need the most amount of support.
“They’ve lost everything – their homes, household items and clothes, schools and medical centres,” she said.
“Everything will need to be rebuilt from scratch. Where do you start?”