Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Tad Walch is in the South Pacific reporting on the impact of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the current trip of the faith's leader, President Russell M. Nelson, in six island nations.
NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — As the worst cyclone in the Kingdom of Tonga's recorded history pounded violently toward Setaita Fifita's home, she grabbed her newborn and fled into the middle of the night with her 11-year-old daughter and her sister's family of five.
Once they had picked their way through streets and paths strewn with fallen trees the next morning, she found the home demolished, the roof blown away. She felt utterly bereft. She had no answers for far too many questions.
"I didn't know how I'd get another house," she said. "I was thinking of all the hard work we were going to have to do and how my kids would have to stay in the rain. I didn't know how we could find a place to live."
Here in the South Pacific, help comes in ways both large and small. A saw, a fishing net and a boat can change a life. Resolve can bring self-reliance. A cyclone, disastrous as it is, can bring opportunity to an island nation.
The problem from the cyclone was magnified for President Takaetali Tupou, who is responsible for six congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More than 800 people of all faiths fled to the five white concrete block meetinghouses under his care before and during Cyclone Gita.
"It was the most scary time in my life," the 48-year-old president of the faith's Nuku'alofa North Tonga Stake said. "This was the strongest cyclone I've ever seen. You couldn't see 10 feet in front of your face because of the rain and the winds. Afterward we had no electricity, no water, no phones and there were trees everywhere, many roofs were gone and 24 houses in our area were destroyed."
Church members collected rainwater in large cement tanks at the meetinghouses or their homes for themselves and their neighbors.
The distress was immediate for Fifita, the single mom living with her sister's family. They had all fled when the rattling of the house grew. They jumped in their black van and headed for the meetinghouse, only to be blocked by downed trees. They made it to a relative's house.
"When we came back," she said, at 11 a.m. the next morning, "no more house."
Gita clobbered and demolished 147 houses belonging to families under the watch of Elder Aisake Tukuafu, who is responsible for all of Tonga as the church's Area Seventy.
Cyclones are a way of life in the islands of the South Pacific. Aid from outside groups and organizations, however, isn't always a perfect fit.
After a cyclone in 2014 destroyed 110 homes, the World Bank tried to fund new ones. Building them to the bank's standard, Elder Tukuafu said, proved too expensive for Tonga, where the adjusted net national income per capita is $3,673, about one-14th of that in the United States.
The finances of many on Tonga's 45 inhabited islands are subsidized by remittances from family and friends around the world. Last year, Tongans received $152 million in remittances, but that money does little to alleviate a disaster like the one Fifita faced.
The World Bank was not willing to help this time because of the size of the problem. Suggestions were made to build temporary houses with nothing more than a government roof, a floor and four posts.
"I knew we could do better than that," Elder Tukuafu said.
Fortunately, he had learned that LDS Charities had provided two portable sawmill machines to tiny Vanuatu after a similar storm. In 2016, he asked for the one not being used there to help with the job of clearing some coconut trees from a church campground in Tonga. The sawmill was still here when Gita struck in February 2018.
Elder Tukuafu saw an opportunity.
"All the time when cyclones hit, we call (church headquarters in) Salt Lake City for money," he said. "This time we saw a chance to model self-reliance for the church in the whole country."
Self-reliance is a key piece of the church's teachings and why another Tongan stake president, Tevita 'Asi Sr., bought a fishing boat and nets. In addition to providing additional income for his family — in a place where many live on $20 a day, three crabs can bring in nearly $25 and four fish sell for about $12 — he regularly takes other people out to learn how to fish and sometimes is able to provide food for others.
On Thursday morning, in an inlet where wind-whipped waves sprayed ocean water over him and into his boat, 'Asi Sr. caught dozens of fish in a 500-meter net left in the ocean overnight. The fish were hauled in by his tireless sons Tali, 13; Tevita Jr., 11; and Kelikolio, 10; and their friend 'Atunaisa Fakahau, 13, whose father, Bishop Simione Fakahau, steered a second boat.
'Asi Sr. said he had been spearfishing and crab hunting along the shores of Tonga since he was a newlywed to feed his family. Fewer and fewer Tongans are fishing today, he said.
"Two years ago I went out with the bishop and saw they got more fish with a net. I realized that could be additional income for my family. I have tried to do the same for others," he said.
He was able to get a small loan to purchase a boat and paid it off in one month.
Tupou and his two counselors in the stake presidency had begun on their own to construct small homes for the families of 22 church members and two families staying with members in his stake.
Progress was welcome but slow.
Until the saw was put to use and a new vocational program changed the equation.
In a field behind one meetinghouse on Wednesday, five strong Tongan men lifted a coconut tree trunk onto the sawmill's bed. Two men guided the saw down the length of the trunk, cutting off the bark and creating a flat surface. The saw screamed as it pierced the wood, and sawdust sprayed upward and flew downwind. When the saw retreated, the men lifted the trunk and turned it on its side. They worked the timber until they produced a piece that would become part of the frame or the flooring for a new home.
A few minutes away by car, tears streamed down Fifita's face while she answered questions about the local men crawling all over the frame of her new home. On top of the skeleton, two men wearing plastic orange safety vests balanced precariously as one handed another a handsaw in light rain falling from an overcast sky. Below, others hammered nails to fix metal straps to the coconut wood.
Several key factors changed the equation here.
First, the church's humanitarian arm fostered an agreement for a few dozen members to enter a vocational carpentry training program called Tonga Skills that provides tools and requires 400 hours of on-the-job work. The budding carpenters work eight hours a day, five days a week — weather permitting — building temporary homes for those who lost theirs.
A stake president in Hawaii offered some cash, and a Tongan stake in the Bay Area of California sent a container full of plywood and timber. Elder Tukuafu donated leftover cement blocks from his construction business. The blocks are critical. They act as stilts to keep the wood out of the swampy ground and away from termites and also provide cooling breezes during the hot, stifling summer months.
Today, 80 out of the 95 homes the church crews will build are complete, thanks to a saw, some ingenuity, willing helpers and lumber cleared out of the roads after the cyclone by Tupou's congregations and others.
"The coconut trees were free," Elder Tukuafu said. "We pick the best of the lot and machine them."
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Tonga this week as part of President Russell M. Nelson's ministry tour through six South Pacific nations.
"What do you do?" after a cyclone like Gita, he said. "You get a little mini-mill, and you saw the logs and you build houses out of it. And if you saw enough of the logs, you take the rest for firewood and distribute it on buses. When you're done, the missionaries and the members have served in the community, and cleaned up the debris and given the sense that we are here to be helpful, and they've constructed something for people when they need to be in a home."
Sione Mafi, 53, is an artist who joined training program. He said the church's Perpetual Education Fund is instrumental. He received a PEF loan for nearly $300 to pay for the training. He pays it back about $5 a month.
"This is good with our monthly income," he said.
He has finished nearly 350 of his 400-hour training requirement.
"I am so glad to learn and at the same time to make people happy," he said, "to help them and give them a smile after a sad time they had in the hurricane."
The crews of skilled laborers with certificates as second-level carpenters will help the island for decades to come, according to Elder Tukuafu.
"This effort is not only building temporary shelters, it's building the people," he said.3 comments on this story
Fifita's perspective is more immediate. She has been living in a makeshift space when it rains. It's been raining steadily here for two weeks. All she can do is cry now that the answers to her questions have arrived and her daughter, Emeline, 12, and son, Dwayne, 1, soon will have a waterproof roof and solid, coconut wood around them and under their feet.
"I'm so very grateful they're helping out to build a home for me and my children to be safe," she said, smiling through her tears. "I don't know how else I'd get another house."
The work crew looked like orange-jacketed angels to her.
"I'm very grateful for them because I know this is a blessing from Heavenly Father," Fifita said. "This is tremendous kindness and generosity toward us."