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How New Zealand helped Tonga recover from Gita

Helping children return to school as quickly as possible after a natural disaster is vital.

Cyclone Gita was the most intense tropical cyclone to hit Tonga since records began. When it smashed into Tonga in February 2018, no-one had any idea how bad the impact would be. The days after were hugely chaotic, as assessment teams scrambled to reach remote areas and restore communications.

What was immediately clear was how badly many buildings had been damaged. Among them, 65 schools, which had lost roofs or had buildings collapse.

The importance of education

Helping students regain a sense of normalcy and reduces stress and trauma is very important after a big disaster, especially for children. So returning children to education is vital. UNICEF supported the Tonga’s Ministry of Education and Training, to ensure all children could return to school as quickly as possible.

Reopening schools also helps families. It means routine can be re-established and children are not at home all day, which can cause additional stress in households - many of which were also damaged. Amazingly, all schools were able to reopen just two weeks after the cyclone!

UNICEF Pacific Supply and Logistics Specialist Patrick Adler and Emergency Officer Jonathan Hall off-load education supplies from Fiji to help 14,000 primary and high school students.

Playing our part

This was partly due to UNICEF providing tents to use as temporary classrooms as part of funding provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade through UNICEF New Zealand. Other items supplied including school-in-a-box kits, recreation kits with sports equipment, and UNICEF backpacks to encourage children to return to school.

This was a true joint effort. The New Zealand Defence Force offered to ship 26 tonnes of our emergency supplies from Suva in Fiji within days of the cyclone, which was also a huge factor in getting supplies to where they were needed quickly.

New Zealand Air Force ground crew load emergency tents onto palettes that will be airlifted to Tonga as part of UNICEF's emergency relief efforts.

Making a difference

I was monitoring UNICEF’s response activities in Tonga, along with colleagues from UNICEF Pacific. We visited eight affected schools, accompanied by Tongan officials who were helping coordinate the response activities. There, we interviewed teachers and head teachers, and held focus group discussions with students to see what they thought of the response.

The teachers explained that many students simply wouldn’t have been able to return to school, and indeed would still be out of school, if the UNICEF tents hadn’t been made available, such was the structural damage to many classrooms.

We also assessed how useful the UNICEF-provided equipment provided was. Every teacher interviewed said the kits were very useful indeed, particularly the notebooks, pens, pencils and crayons, and other stationary, as most of those items had been destroyed or lost in the cyclone.

Our focus group discussions with students centered around the backpacks and recreation kits, with the students telling us excitedly how the rugby balls, footballs, volleyballs and skipping ropes were the most popular items, along with the new bright blue UNICEF backpacks which came filled with drink bottles and essential stationery. One group of children also explained how it felt good to come back to school soon after the cyclone.

School children at Fasi Primary School in Tonga were overjoyed to finally get back to school with their UNICEF supplied education kits.

As with all disaster response projects, UNICEF holds ‘lessons learned’ exercises with the Ministries we work with. Overall, we agreed the response coordination was very good.

But one important lesson was the need to increase levels disaster preparedness in Tonga by, for example, having more emergency supplies pre-positioned in Tonga.

We were lucky to have the New Zealand Defence force to deliver supplies within days of Cyclone Gita, but this might not be possible in future.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the UNICEF supported tent at Fasi Primary School during a visit to Tonga in March.

This isn’t just good information to know. It’s potentially life-saving, and will ensure a faster, smoother, more complete response next time. It is through hearing from those who we have helped and worked alongside that we seek to constantly improve our disaster response, in order to be there for every child.

Hamish Lindsay is Programmes Coordinator for UNICEF NZ