Tonga volcano eruption: Damage to locals' mental health ongoing one year on from tsunami

One year on from the eruption in Tonga, a new video has emerged of the moments when the waves began to hit. 

In the weeks that followed, much-needed international aid was hampered when COVID-19 arrived at the same time.

While the eruption of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai caused few casualties, the damage to Tongans' mental health is ongoing.

When the first deceptively-small waves arrived at Tonga's shores, people had minutes to flee to higher ground before the tsunami hit.

Toefilinga Finau and her family had no time to think and left everything behind.

"Our small car, small car, we are all inside, and when the people come they ran with their baby and I said, 'Bring it, bring it'," she said.

"And my children at the back they said, 'Bring it to me'. I don't know how we got them."

Four babies were on her lap in a tiny car. Her father-in-law has gifted them a truck since, but 11-year-old Maata still has nightmares.

"She says she was afraid," her mum translated.

She reminds her mum to park the truck facing towards the road.

"Always she reminds me, 'Mummy, did you return the truck to face to the front?' I say, 'Why?' [She says] 'Because when the tsunami, we go, get ready to go'," Finau said.

Just four deaths were linked to the tsunami in all of Tonga, but Health Minister Saia Piukala said the injuries from that day are mostly unseen.

"I don't think any Tongans will ever forget," he said.

Because everything came at once.

"A volcanic eruption, the tsunami, the ash fall, and two weeks later, the COVID-19 arrives."

Efforts to deliver aid were delayed already because ash in the seawater caused boat engines to die. COVID-19 made access even harder.

"Once we are hit with any natural disaster, like a tropical cyclone, we get to receive people within 48 hours or so," said Moana Kioa from the National Emergency Management Office.

Instead, communities were cut off for weeks in unimaginable conditions.

"With all this dead animals and no proper water supply for people, proper sanitation, that was a huge challenge for us," Dr Piukala said.

After the tsunami, Finau and her family returned to a blanket of ash and mud and debris that took two months to clean up.

"I can't believe my house is there. We thought, 'My house is lost'."

Gravestones, which include those of Finau's in-laws, were swept away by the tsunami and the locals have rebuilt them using piles of sand.

The temporary fixes are visible in a landscape that has largely recovered, but everyone has a story from that day and memories like that will likely never fade.