Earlier this month, Cyclone Gita rampaged through the South Pacific.  Gita was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the region.  On February 12, it struck the island nation of Tonga.

The devastation caused by Gita was severe.  Fortunately, there were few fatalities – two deaths have been attributed to the storm – but property damage was catastrophic.  More than 1,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and the power grid was severely impacted.  The 120-year-old Parliament building – a national symbol to the Tongans and survivor of numerous cyclones and earthquakes – was destroyed.  Food crops such as bananas and breadfruits were devastated, leading to fears of food shortages.

The Tongans are widely known, however, as a strong and resilient people.  They also were one of the first island nations in the South Pacific to build an international submarine fiber optic cable to connect to the rest of the world.

Recently, SCW has been tracking the developments in the South and Central Pacific as the global submarine cable network reaches out to more and more islands.  Tonga, however, has had an international cable since 2013.  So in terms of communications, Tonga was better prepared for the disaster than it would have been at any previous point in its history.

At SCW, we wanted to know if the cable survived the storm and if Tonga benefited from having the cable as the recovery effort moved forward.  As we did not want to burden Tongan officials with interview requests during the crisis, we contacted Tony Mosley Director of Business Development of Ocean Specialists Inc. (OSI).  Based in Guam, Tony was part of a team that recently completed work on a domestic submarine cable project in Tonga and is in touch with people on the island.

“I’ve been told that the international cable survived Gita intact,” Tony said.  “While most buildings on the island were hit, the cable station, being a new and well-built structure, was not badly damaged.”

“The cable is proving to be a lifeline,” Tony continued.  “In isolated, remote areas during a disaster, the lack of communications with the rest of the world is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when trying to alleviate the suffering of the people who have been impacted.  With the cable, the Tongan government has been able to maintain communications with foreign countries, especially Australia and New Zealand, whose aid efforts will be on the front line during the recovery.  This is especially important in something like the potential food crisis, which can only be dealt with by shipments of food from overseas.  Good communications can speed the recovery efforts and bring relief to the people faster and the cable is providing just that.”

“I’m also hearing that the cable is having a tremendous positive impact on the morale of the people on the island.  In my experience with storms it’s always good being able to go off hook and hear a dial tone in a storm and making a call is always comforting.  Being able to contact family and friends, especially those overseas, eases the stress for all involved.  That’s why it’s called a lifeline,” Tony concluded.