‘Eseta tells her story one year on from the Tonga tsunami disaster

Dec 21, 2022

It has been one year since the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai and the subsequent powerful tsunami devastated the homes and livelihoods of Tongan families. 

For the past year, Habitat has been working with local partners and the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology (TIST) to understand and address the need for decent shelter and provide an opportunity for eight families to rebuild their lives in a new, safe home.

‘Eseta Kuliha’apai, aged 56, is a widow of seven children from Sopu, Tonga. Her three bedroom home was severely damaged by the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai tsunami on the 15th January 2022, with everything inside taken by the waves leaving. She lives with her elderly mother, aged 76, and her sister is living with a disability. When the incident happened early January, she recalls having to evacuate her mother and sister first.

“I had to think fast and it was good my children helped me evacuate my mother and sister to higher grounds. We took them inwards to Tofoa before coming back for the rest of the family members.

We were all scared, I will not lie about that. When we heard the first big bang coming from the clouds, we knew immediately it had to be a volcanic eruption. Immediately after the few bangs we heard, we saw the sea as we live just by the seaside. It did not look normal, that’s when I shouted that we needed to move to the highest point.”

Life before the eruption was normal for them. As a widow she still works. She has odd jobs to earn money for the family, which includes making and selling of handicrafts and food. Three of her kids also work to support the family given that they have many in their household. 

“Following the incident, we had to flee to live with family which has been difficult because there is about nine of us living together in our home. The first time we visited our home after the tsunami, it was so devastating to see our home directly impacted. One of the things that crossed my mind when I saw our home was our financial status. The truth is that we do not have sufficient funds to even rebuild our home or buy materials given that I am the main breadwinner.


Carpentry students at the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology (TIST) learning to construct the frame of a house as part of the rebuild.


We were one of the homes that were initially assessed by government, but our names were not on their list. When Habitat for Humanity’s team came and started to ask questions and I noticed the questions were very specific asking about our source of income, whether there is a person with disability and how many in the household. I felt the process was different and took into consideration other factors. Since that assessment I have been praying about a home for our family. When I was notified by our town officer that our names are on the final list for Habitat’s rebuild project, I just cried. I was so emotional because we had been moving from different family homes. Now I am just excited to move to our new home.”

When asked about her plans for the new home she excited responded, “I have great plans for our new home. Since the building started, I come out with my daughter and mother to watch it go up. I get emotional all the time when I see the work progressing and thankful to God for this support. I can’t wait to do a garden; I am planning to grow vegetables and plant some root crops so I don’t have to buy it and just live off my land. We have built on my son’s land because it is on a higher ground, to relocate back to where we where is risky and it brings back daunting memories. We do continue to live in fear and knowing that our new home is on higher grounds is so reassuring. I was in distress for almost two months since the incident and still panic when I hear any loud bang thinking we will be hit by a tsunami. Honestly, this project has helped me to overcome my fears slowly, knowing that we will have a home again.”


‘Eseta and her daughter Ivy standing in front of the structure that will become their home in the next few months.


“Thank you Habitat, TIST and the Home Foundation for supporting this project. I am so grateful to you guys for having my home built. For me personally, it’s not so much about the size of the home because our family will make it a home, but knowing and seeing the efforts from the [TIST] students building my home has just been overwhelming.

Seeing the house go up really has been the best Christmas gift for me.”