Tonga Eruption: Surf Camp Wiped Out by Tsunami 'We Were on the Phone To Them As They Were Escaping'

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 123d ago

In 1979, Steve Burling and his wife Sesika started Ha’atafu Resort on the west coast of Tongatapu. A Polynesian nation in the South Pacific, Tonga may be less well known than Samoa (in the surf world, at least), but is equally rich in culture and waves as its neighbor to the north. Steve and Sesika recognised the value of those waves early on. After pioneering many of the surf spots on Tonga’s main island, they went to work building their dream home and business.

Four decades later, Ha’atafu had become an established surf resort favoured by a loyal crew of visitors who came for both the south swells of winter and north swells of summer. This past week, the resort was hosting a dozen or so visitors when it was blasted by a series of tsunamis caused by the violent eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano. While initial satellite images indicated widespread devastation on Tongatap, communication with the island was cut off for a number of days after the eruption due to damage to the underwater Internet cable.

Satellite image of the powerful volcanic eruption from Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai that caused the tsunami.

Satellite image of the powerful volcanic eruption from Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai that caused the tsunami.

A week on, rudimentary communication has been restored to the island. Alan Burling, who grew up at Ha’atafu Resort but now lives with his family in New Zealand, has been able to speak to his parents and sister Moana, who now runs the resort with her husband. We chatted with Alan today to get an idea of the situation in Tonga and how the rest of us can help.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Alan. I’m sure things are pretty crazy for your family right now. What’s the situation there on Tongatapu?
Well, the western coast of Tongatapu was the closest part of the island to the earthquake and faced directly into the tsunami, and it’s pretty crazy how much bigger the wave was there. You’ve probably seen footage of Nukualofa and the damage there, which was bad, but the wave there was more like a surge there, whereas on the west coast it was giant, so it was much larger and more destructive.

Scale of the devastation.

Scale of the devastation.

Did all of the villages on the western coast get destroyed?
Not all of them. The one directly behind the resort is in a bit of a valley, and it got pretty badly affected. The village of Ha’atafu sits up on a hill, so the destruction there wasn’t as bad. It was mostly the residential area around our resort and the other resorts on the western coast that got smashed.

The footage of the devastation is pretty crazy. Amazingly, it seems that there weren’t as many casualties as you would expect from something like this [the government has confirmed three fatalities so far]. How did everyone manage to escape the tsunami?
Yeah, it’s pretty crazy seeing the damage and then hearing that everyone got to safety. What I heard from my sister is that they had zero warning at all. The first wave actually hit before the major explosion, so it must have been a shallow earthquake or something that triggered the first wave, and then the explosion caused the bigger one, which came behind it. My sister said the first wave kind of washed into the resort without them knowing, then they heard the big explosion.

The first wave actually hit before the major explosion, so it must have been a shallow earthquake or something that triggered the first wave, and then the explosion caused the bigger one, which came behind it

They were able to get all the guests out just in time, and then the bigger wave rushed in. By the time the water rushed inland, they didn’t have time to save anything, so they had to run through the bushes to get to safety and then a family friend picked them up on the road. They just got out through the village above the resort before the wave overwhelmed that area, so they got out just in the nick of time.

Communications were down for a number of days after the eruption, but it sounds like you have been able to get in touch with your family?
When it happened, we were actually on video call with them as they were escaping. It was all really emotional, because my sister and her family were trying to get to safety and my nieces and nephew were not handling it too well.

When it happened, we were actually on video call with them as they were escaping

And then the last we got from them was just before they got to the town that is inland a bit, and then we lost contact with them for around two days, which was quite stressful. Then we got into contact with them on Monday or Tuesday through satellite phone. But as of yesterday the major cell provider there has managed to get some of the cell service back up, so my mom and dad managed to get in touch with my sister to get an update on what’s happening on the ground there.

So what exactly is the situation there on Tongatapu? What are the needs there at the moment?
What we are hearing is that Nukualofa and most of the areas along the coastline on Tongatapu suffered a lot of damage. It’s quite a flat island, so it’s sort of difficult for people to understand how much damage was going to happen with water coming inland. Nukualofa received a lot of damage, closer to the coastline, but most of the buildings managed to withstand the surge. So there’s a big cleanup initiative there around the rest of the island right now.

But it was much worse on the west coast—a lot of people lost their homes and pretty much everything in them, so there is a big need for clothing, blankets, food, and clean drinking water [much of the island’s water has been polluted by the ash from the volcano]. There is a lot being done by Australia and New Zealand in support of that, but there are also quite a few people reaching out to us offering clothes and blankets and water to be shipped to Tonga when we send a container. So those are some of the major needs.

And what about your family and resort? How bad was the damage, and are you planning to rebuild?
We still don’t know what our plan is going to be. Once the dust settles, we will have a better chance to assess, but a lot will depend on my sister Moana and her husband and their kids (who have been running the resort for the past few years ever since our parents stepped away from managing it), and what they decide to do. It’s really hard to say, because we literally lost everything, and insurance in Tonga doesn’t cover natural disasters like this. So we are at a crossroads at the moment.

Obviously, we all want to rebuild, but there’s always going to be the uncertainty of the volcano hanging around. It’s been active now for 10-15 years, and having that risk there all the time—it’s really up in the air at the moment. Many of the other resorts on the west coast aren’t even considering rebuilding. After the destruction of the category five hurricane in 2020 and now this, it’s just not worth the risk.

For now, the GoFundMe account that we have started is to support Moana and her family, because they have lost everything, and also to support our staff. Most of our long-term staff rely heavily on the business for their livelihood. We have 20 or 30 staff members and want to make sure that we can provide for them, at least in the short term. A lot of them live around the resort and have been badly affected as well.

Well, we appreciate the update and are glad to hear that everyone is safe, but we also have you all in our thoughts as your family and the community there in Tonga begins to recover from this disaster. Please keep us posted as things develop and new opportunities arise to contribute to the relief efforts.
Cheers, thanks mate.

Those interested in supporting the staff at Ha’atafu Resort can donate to the GoFundMe account here. UNICEF and the International Federation of Red Cross are also spearheading relief efforts in Tonga and are accepting donations through their websites.