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LDS World: Cyclone Ian and lessons from the people of Tonga

Published: Sunday, Jan. 26 2014 5:10 a.m. MST

LDS missionaries in white shirts and Digicel Tonga in red help unload emergency relief supplies from a chartered relief flight after it arrived in cyclone-ravaged Haapai Sunday. (Digicel Tonga) LDS missionaries in white shirts and Digicel Tonga in red help unload emergency relief supplies from a chartered relief flight after it arrived in cyclone-ravaged Haapai Sunday. (Digicel Tonga)

I suspect that all the advance warning in the world cannot prepare someone for the experience of being in the path of a viciously destructive Category 5 cyclone.

Packing gale force winds in excess of 175 mph, virtually everything in the storm’s path will take a beating — life and limb in jeopardy; home and structures destroyed or severely damaged; massive trees uprooted; huge waves pounding beaches and flooding towns; cars; trucks and boats overturned; and mangled winds whipping deadly objects through the air — all culminating in immense carnage and destruction.

This was the experience recently of the Tongan people living in the Ha’apai Island chain in the Kingdom of Tonga. Initial reports indicated that more than 70 percent of the structures in the cyclone’s path were damaged or destroyed, including the homes of 50 percent of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on those islands.

Aerial view of the devastation left by Cyclone Ian in Tonga. (Lavenia Taufalele, LDS Church) Aerial view of the devastation left by Cyclone Ian in Tonga. (Lavenia Taufalele, LDS Church)

The LDS Church members jumped into action, providing supplies, manpower and emergency items, according to news releases from the church. Donations from Mormons on other islands poured into rescue centers. Outside agencies also jumped into action as did Tongans on other islands, sending a wide variety of emergency and medical supplies, and money to aid the stricken people.

LDS chapels, sturdy concrete structures that survived the storm, were opened to house those in need.

My son is currently a missionary in Tonga, serving in the Nuku’alofa area on the island of Tonga. We didn’t hear from Matt immediately after the cyclone hit, but I knew early on that he was not in the storm’s path. I’m sure he is busy, as are all the Mormon missionaries in those islands, helping to load supplies on planes and assist with clean up and in any way that they can.

LDS missionaries, Mormon Helping Hands volunteers and others unload emergency supplies for the Cyclone Ian victims in Ha'apai, Tonga. (Tad Walch) LDS missionaries, Mormon Helping Hands volunteers and others unload emergency supplies for the Cyclone Ian victims in Ha'apai, Tonga. (Tad Walch)

I have a colleague at BYU who is Tongan, and when I talked to him earlier this week his first question was, “How’s your son?” I told him I hadn’t heard from him, but I knew he was fine and my concern and prayers were for the people in the cyclone’s path, knowing how difficult this would be for them.

Forty percent of the people in Tonga live below the poverty line and live in small and simple lodgings with little or no food storage or supplies. On a few islands people are even without electricity.

They depend on nature for much of their food — root foods that they can extract from the soil, fish from the sea, food from bushes or food that can be had from trees. When a natural disaster strikes they are in great jeopardy because root foods are uprooted and rot; trees are down; dead fish float in troubled seas; water sources are contaminated; sitting water putrefies, and rather quickly disease, hunger and famine become serious problems.

LDS missionaries, Mormon Helping Hands volunteers and others unload emergency supplies for the Cyclone Ian victims in Ha'apai, Tonga. (LDS Church) LDS missionaries, Mormon Helping Hands volunteers and others unload emergency supplies for the Cyclone Ian victims in Ha'apai, Tonga. (LDS Church)

Such conditions might panic those of us who live in fast-paced, complex and complicated civilizations. However, my Tongan friend taught me a lesson as we spoke with one another. He explained that fellow Tongans would quickly come to the aid of those in Cyclone Ian’s path and they have. Others would reach out and assist them, and that too is happening.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the Tongan people’s needs are simple. Their structures and the few material goods that they have can be replaced. They are an unpretentious, humble people. They love to gather to spend time with friends and loved ones. They will give you the shirt off their backs and happily put a meal before you even though they might not know where their next meal is coming from.

Tonga is not a utopian community. The people have their share of challenges and problems. Yet, minus the myriad toys and gadgets, the lofty degrees, the quest for money and the conspicuous consumption found in many western societies, they will respond to what has happened in simple, humble ways. They will rebuild their spare, small, little-cluttered homes, replace the sleeping mats on the floor, return to their simple way of life, and take great joy in the fact that there was little human carnage. And they will go on about their lives.

For the many Tongans living on those islands who are members of the LDS Church, as my Tongan colleague explained, they will derive a straightforward, clear message from what has happened. They will not spend hours and energy devising and applying convoluted weather theories as to why this happened. They will not point fingers or lay blame when every condition and issue associated with the storm is not addressed.

Instead, he explained, they will think that perhaps they need to reform their lives, make some changes, and draw closer to God. He predicted that my son would be busy over the next few months, helping to reactivate and bring souls to Jesus Christ.

I certainly can, and should, find ways to assist the people of Tonga at this time and should assist any community where a natural disaster strikes. Christians can hardly do anything less and call themselves disciples of Christ. Yet, perhaps my attitude and outreach pale in comparison to what I might take from these simple, faithful, humble people. Perhaps they’ve got it a little bit “righter” than me.

I may have more material possessions, and live in grand comfort, but in many ways they seem more content. They focus on friends, family, and their faith shines forth as they trust God to watch over them and to provide that which they need.

I may be very well-educated, but I still have a lot to learn.

Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part-time at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU. Email: kfrederickson@desnews.com

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