Our dear friends survived a major cyclone in Tonga this spring. Their beautiful private island, Uoleva, and their amazing cabins on an absolutely perfect South Pacific beach were destroyed. Their entire resort was smashed and they were were lucky to withstand the cyclone alive.
First, here are some photos of what Serenity Beaches looked like when we visited:
Arriving at Uoleva Island, Tonga… notice the lush and green jungle…
Our spa bathroom with outdoor shower…
Solar lights line thick jungle path to gazebo restaurant…
The perfect white sand beach and clear turquoise water…
Read more at:
Patti’s heart-breaking story of the cyclone follows…
Notes from Category 5 Cyclone Ian – written February 7, 2014:
by Patti Ernst
I left Ha’apai this morning, February 7, 2014, exactly 4 weeks from the day when we got the cyclone alert and I wrote my last email. I just counted the days today. I had no idea it had been so long. Sorry for the huge delay in communications. They said it would be a few weeks before they could get out to the island and put the antenna back up. By the time it was done, I would be leaving for town, so I just decided to wait – something one learns to do by living in Tonga.
Ha’apai survived category 5 cyclone Ian with only one life lost, but major damage that will take many months, hopefully not years, to repair. We have had 3 other cyclones, even a category 4, but nothing compared to this one. Our spirits are good and we plan to rebuild, but it will take major effort. I had tried to get cyclone insurance but we were refused. We did well even in the category 4 but Cat 5 is a whole different story.
I saw Pangai, the capital of the Ha’apai group of islands, today on my way through town and it is really devastated but money and help of all kinds is pouring in and in the long run all will be repaired and improved. It will, however, be a very slow process and Tongans must wait to have repairs happen. Most are now living in tents.
It was low season and Semi and I had settled into a relaxed life style in December with minor repairs, planning for major expansion scheduled to start the second week in January, and doing lots of reading, guitar, yoga and swims. Guests were scheduled to arrive in January. Since it was cyclone season, I did an occasional check on Hurricane Zone.net and noticed that there was an area being watched near Fiji.
It started to move toward us and by Monday it was at 19 and 146 (we are 19.5 and 146.2) but it was a clear beautiful day with no wind. I joked with Salesi, “Where is it?” Then it headed north again and sat there most of the week. However, on Friday we got a cyclone alert but still did not really believe it was really heading for us.
Late Friday, it turned around and aimed right for us. We did some final preparations, and had a nice sleep that night but by 10 AM Saturday January 11, it had passed Va’vau Islands, and it became quite clear that we were in for a direct hit, and it was now being labeled category 5.
We prepared our tiny Tongan house to stay in but when we saw the level of the wind and the flailing of the tall palms, Semi expressed concern that one of the largest trees might fall on the house so we stayed in the staff housing, under the tin roof that is used to collect water. By noon, huge branches were flying through the air, rain was non-stop and horizontal, and the sound of the wind and the sea was deafening.
We moved from room to room for shelter but a branch would hit a wall and it would collapse or the roof was dented and the room we were in would become a waterfall. Finally, when we were wet and shaking from cold, Semi decided we must move to our house. At this point there were so many things flying through the air that the thought was terrifying, but we needed to get warm and dry so all we could do was pray and run. Flying objects and horizontal rain paved the way.
We arrived safely, dried off and changed clothes and settled in to listening to the radio for hours – and hours. For the first time Tonga did a great job tracking and reporting the storm so we knew how far away it was, when it was in our Pangai Islands and when it had passed. However, to us it all seemed the same.
During other cyclones we had breathing space when the eye went over, but this time no break, just steady hard wind and deafening noise for hours and hours and hours. As it began to get dark, the report said it was south of Pangai. I kept asking Semi if he thought the sound was getting softer and finally after 7 pm it really did get softer. At one point Semi wanted to take a light and go out and look, but there was still too much wind and the danger of falling trees, branches and coconuts. Exhausted, I finally put my head down and slept.
While I was asleep, Semi took a light and went for a walk. He returned with news that “everything is broken”. I still couldn’t face it until morning.
When the sun came up, we ventured forth to explore. It was difficult climbing over fallen trees and branches to get to the front side and to see the eating area with 11 roof panels scattered all over the ground – a new skylight. When we got there Semi said, “Let’s go see how the others are”. So the walk to the other side would have to wait.
We walked down the beach to Tiana’s where we found Kalafi making a sunshade out of torn plastic and Tiana cooking breakfast over a fire. Semi walked back to get beer, fish and vegetables, which he cooked while Tiana cooked fallen breadfruit. We sat among totally flattened buildings sharing friendship and stories, allowing it to sink in and just being grateful to be alive.
As the sun got low in the sky, we headed back to take a walk to the other side. The sight was devastating. Half of the trees were knocked over and many had landed on the roofs. Roof pieces were missing, doors broken and shades all down. The trees had barely any leaves left. It looked barren. My words to Semi in the morning had been, “I think this is a sign for me to go back to the USA”. Now, as the sun set, his words to me were, “We need to rebuild.” I agreed.
The minister we bought our new boat, Triumph, from called later in the week and he confirmed our thoughts with his words, “It is better to leave in victory than in defeat.”
We headed back to take a shower – the water tank, in the front, and the solar panels and refrigerator were still in tact so cold drinking water and hot showers have been our luxuries.
On the way back to our house in the dark I ran into a jagged branch which stripped the skin off my leg. Just today, almost 4 weeks later and with lots of care, it has finally healed. From that point on, every step has been taken with great awareness and care. Hazards abound.
Monday morning was the day to begin the task at hand and a mighty task it is. We cleared a trail to the staff housing and found crackers and hot chocolate and had breakfast. Then we cleared another narrow trail to the front eating area and kitchen and arrived just in time for lunch, 5 hours later. It was really slow going. My comment to Semi was, “What we really need is more hands.”
That night I got a call that the woman who had a reservation for Tuesday was on her way, was bringing supplies and was coming to help. Thus, the first of 3 angels from New Zealand and Fiji arrived.
Simone, a stunning blonde, originally form Kauai and now from Wanaka, NZ, arrived the next morning bearing gifts of toilet paper, tin fish, rice, tarps… She hopped off the boat, rolled up her sleeves and went to work, sunrise to sunset, until the following Monday. Glowing, and with sweat pouring off of us, we forged new trails, cleared spaces and rested in the sea. The cleaning alone will take months, but we had started.
Then, my daughter Laura, who has been doing a bit of my email from Florida said, Tony (a former guest) says he is free from work until February and would be happy to come if you need him. Yes, yess yesss !!!!!! Tony arrived Friday with three hand saws, energy bars, a hard hat and an “I can do anything” attitude. He worked for 10 days non-stop. Tony had stayed here 2 years ago with his family and must have heard my call.
On Sunday morning we got a call that Semi’s precious, beautiful Mom was in the hospital and a few hours later that day she had died. So he flew home on Monday and returned Friday and then went back the following Monday for the funeral that was delayed because of brothers arriving from overseas. So Semi has been away much of the time which has made the angels that have come to my rescue even more important.
While Tony was here, Salesi and 3 young boys came for 2 days to get the chain saw work started. Eight acres of trees is a lot of trees. Eight acres equals 348,480 square feet. They got trails cleared and raked, and have much firewood nicely stacked. The four of them worked hard and fast and made a huge leap forward. The rewarding part of all this is that what ever you do it looks like a lot. And you have a great sense of accomplishment.
Then, just as Tony was about to leave, Simone called and said her ex-husband had 3 weeks left on his visa and was willing to come and help. “He loves to fish and will feed you all.” So the day after Semi left for the funeral and to see his brothers from overseas, Tara, from Fiji arrived with a bucket of cream crackers, tin fish and loads of laughter. He is up every morning before the sun is up and goes to the other side and works for hours before breakfast.
Tara and I have worked together from sunrise to sunset, under the blazing sun. I have never needed to drink so much water. He has adopted me as his mother and comments often on my energy and ability to move so quickly and easily. We have changed the oil in the generator, pumped the water, prepared all the houses on the other side to be moved and rebuilt. Laughter rains – literally, rain comes in through the roof, as we try to eat and we laugh.
Semi had carefully covered all the openings with the tarps Simone brought but the follow-up storm, with 40 knot winds directly from the north, ripped them off and shredded them.
My memories are of a devastating storm that will take months or years to recover from, but more than that, of sweating under the hot sun, laughing with angels, loving caring people who opened there hearts and had the ability to come and help, appreciation that we made it through alive and have the energy and enthusiasm to rebuild.
My mantra since coming to Tonga, ”Another problem, another opportunity to grow” is more true than ever. There have been brief moments of discouragement and overwhelm, but mostly, day upon day of feeling totally grateful. My most vivid memories are of good times, working hard together, and the many faces and expressions of love. Yes, this place was originally built with love. Now, it is being rebuilt with even more love, creativity and good times. The vegetation is not as thick but that will grow back.
Some places were totally washed away. Many people in Pangai are living in tents, as their homes having been totally washed away. People and countries around the world are coming to their rescue. I finally got to town today to see the devastation. When you make it through something like this you come out stronger. Karen, my daughter, says we know you are strong and you have many stories to tell. But enough already!!!!
It has been a month of isolation, demanding work, joy, love, laughter, and exhaustion. Not even any music; I poured the water out of my Boze speaker. Even the passports in the safe got wet.
I am ready for a break. Semi has had some time away so he is refreshed and ready for the heavy construction work he and his brothers have facing them. Four of them have started with enthusiasm and vigor. We plan to be open on one side by April and fully open by June. I have some videos I will get out. What an experience. One of my favorite songs has a line that says,“Some people seem destined to settle for something small, but I won’t rest until I know I’ve done it all”. Oops! Maybe I need to reconsider that as being a goal.
Another favorite quote has always been an old Chinese proverb, “ My barn having burned; I can now see the moon”. My rewrite of that is,“The cyclone having come, I can now see more stars from my bed.”
Thanks for your loving thoughts and messages. Every word of encouragement helps us to have courage to keep on keeping on…
Patti & Semi
Update: Patti and Semi have almost finished rebuilding their beautiful resort and have even added some new things…
May 1, 2014 This is my latest update:
I have been so busy and without internet on the island since January 11, it has been challenging.
What an experience — getting hit by a category 5 cyclone.
Definitely a test of courage, faith, and trust. After the cyclone, we could see from one side of the island to the other but could not walk because of all the trees and branches that had fallen. With the help of some angels in the form of volunteers and eight workers — and nature’s ability to heal, four months later we have rebuilt all of the houses. All of the trails have been cleared and the branches have been burned or neatly stacked for future campfires. The new growth has been amazing and the island has never been so green. The other side of the island is now impossible to see. What were little sticks four months ago are now big bushy trees. The ocean, beach and reef have retained their pristine beauty throughout.
We are now starting the new houses and the new restaurant we had planned, to meet the need we felt last year. The old restaurant is becoming a dedicated yoga/classroom space. With 8 acres we felt we had plenty of space for a few more places to stay.
Interesting that we bought a new whale swimming boat just before the cyclone and the name was Triumph. We are keeping the name as it served as a reminder of what we needed to do.
We have decided to celebrate our triumph over the storm by lowering our prices. Our en-suite rooms are being reduced from 330 TOP ($189C) to 280 TOP ($160C) and our two rooms with a shared bath will be 190 TOP (109). TOP is the Tongan Pa’anga, the local currency.
Food prices will remain the same. This is a bold move but we want to make it possible for more people to share the joy and feel the peace. So if you have been wanting to return to what some guests call their favorite place on the planet — now is the time to do it. Come and celebrate with us – the eternal beauty and peacefulness and the human spirit that has kept us going to rebuild and make it better than ever.
We are offering some new free classes along with regular morning yoga, Reiki and Massage. Fabulous Fifties and Beyond is for people who are approaching midlife and are preparing to make the second half even better than the first. Intro to The Artist’s Way is an introduction to Ann Cameron’s life changing book and 12 Week course.
Shelley Shane, a psychologist from Hawaii, will be here in August and September, as a licensed whale swim guide. Shelly develops a sense of trust with the whales as well as with her clients.
If you have been away too long we hope to see you this year. If you have never been here we hope to meet you this year. Come and helps us celebrate our Triumph and experience the peace.
With Love and Laughter,