Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Well we've experienced every type of natural disaster now here in Tonga - earthquakes, volcanic explosions, cyclone, and now a tsunami. Most of them haven't been as scary as they sound, but the tsunami today was a little scary.

We got a call from Peace Corps around 8:00am this morning telling us there was a massive 8.3 earthquake in Samoa, just north of Tonga. And because of this they said we could get a tsunami, so they said we should move away from our house and inland for a couple of hours. We get warnings once in awhile from Peace Corps and usually nothing happens, so we slowly got ready and Brett sat down on the back steps to eat a papaya. Looking out at the ocean he noticed the water looked funny and called me to come look at it. It looked normal at first with small waves coming in over the reef edge, but then all of a sudden it got really still and the water swirled around eerily. We both went out to look more and then very quickly the water started draining out to sea, we could see rocks and seaweed clumps, then almost the whole bottom. It was pretty scary, it was obvious that the water was being sucked out by a big wave! So I abandoned my coffee, we grabbed a few things and ran out, telling the neighbors on our way and our japanese neighbor came with us. When we got past the fisheries buildings we saw that the ocean was already coming up fast now, above the shoreline. Brett grabbed the satellite phone from the office, and on the main road in town we got a ride from a Tongan we knew (the local news reporter) who said he'd bring us to Brett's school. But then he headed to the wharf back to the ocean, exactly what we were running away from! It was crazy, the harbour had almost drained out, lots of rock formations were showing that we'd never seen before and the water just kept draining down. Boats were being tossed around by the churning water, and the big oil boat was no longer floating but sitting at an angle on the ocean floor. Then next to the wharf a huge wave came into the harbour, maybe 15 feet high. That's when Brett yelled "go, go, get out of here!!" at the driver, and we sped off along with everyone else at the harbour who had been gawking at the scene. It was surreal to see the ocean drain like that and then the big waves coming in.

(photo above - fleeing from the harbour as the water comes up)

At Brett's school we jumped out with our neighbor Kyoichi and our dog Lucky who had followed us. It was chaos there, people were running up from the ocean, and yelling at everyone to run that there was a tsunami. It was like something you see on the news in far away places, something that would never happen to you. All the school kids came running out towards the bush, we ran with them inland and met up with our neighbors Sailosi and Ana in their car. They said to follow them to a high point on the island, so we ran behind the car. We've never run like this before from a natural disaster, it was scary not knowing what would happen. We got to a little hill and sat and waited for a couple of hours, calling the peace corps office, other volunteers in our island group, and some of the kids' parents that were with us from Brett's school. We were the ones to tell our main peace corps office that we had actually been hit by a small tsunami, they didn't know and the other islands hadn't been hit at all like we had. Phil, another peace corps volunteer, met us at this hill too (Brett described it as the grassy area where eggplants grow and on such a small island Phil knew exactly where we were).

All the other peace corps volunteers are accounted for and safe. In Ha'apai Sarah is on the highest point in her village, Alicia is right in the middle of the island, Grant is fine, Monica on a little island in the middle of nowhere didn't get any wave action at all and Eric and Melanie are on the main island for training. Our dive shop friends actually ran all the way to the other side of the island to the east. And the owners of the bar took their yacht out to sea. We heard accounts of maybe 3 or 4 tsunami waves here, none of them very big though. We got back to our house a few hours ago, and there's no damage but we did accidentaly lock the other dog Simba inside our house! The ocean came up maybe 6 or 8 feet higher than normal. But the waves that hit were very strong, they flattened many low beach bushes and trees, and carried up some large rocks about 20 feet. And many of the boats in the harbour were damaged and moved around by the waves, a few were pushed very far down the shoreline. We've heard that the damage in Samoa is much worse from the earthquake and a tsunami. So some of us are meeting up at our local bar tonight to commiserate and recount todays adventure. Brett and I are supposed to be going on an island trip to Ha'afeva on Friday - his teacher will be administering the exams to class 6 there and asked Brett to go with him. But we'll see if this still happens after today's damage.

I also just want to add, this is NOT common here in Tonga to have tsunamis, it doesn't happen often so don't worry! The last tsunami to hit Ha'apai was sometime in the 1980's. Also all of our experiences between volunteers here have been very different today during the tsunami, us and Phil probably experienced the most action. Alicia didn't see anything happen in her village which is less than a mile from us, and Vava'u volunteers experienced earthquakes but no tsunami action, and I don't think much happened on the main island of Tongatapu. We did just hear that there are 7 to 10 deaths on one of the Niua islands in Tonga - very close to Samoa.

Here's a few links to news stories on the earthquake/tsunami:,2933,557282,00.html

Brett did a phone interview with a local station back home, here's a link to the video, it's the second story:


myrab said...

Thanks for the update. I had been trying to find news from Tonga all evening. Glad you are all okay. I still keep up with the blogs even though Stan is back in the states.

Anonymous said...

Hello Brett and Kate...

Glad you're safe.
Thanks for sending us the pictures, and for doing the interview with us... Very interesting for our viewers in the valley to see and hear about. Great blog as well!!!

Robin Huebner
Valley News Live
Fargo, ND

Jesse Erhardt said...

I turned on the tv and I saw that there was a tsunami in the south pacific and I hoped you and Brett were ok. Thanks for the update.

Kayla said...

Kate, Glad you two are okay! What an experience. Stay well.

Anonymous said...

I do hope that you two invest in many limes :) ...saved by the bouyancy of citrus.


jallton said...

Hi Brett and Kate -- I heard about the tsunami and was so glad to read that you are safe. Thanks for the great blog, too - Keep up the great work!

Jennifer Allton
GE Money
St. Paul, MN

Kate and Brett said...

Thanks for all the comments!