Sunday, February 21, 2010

Juleighs cyclone post

Last week we were hit by a huge cyclone here in Ha'apai. After a week of cleaning I've finally got my house back together. I've read a few of my friends blog accounts of the storm and think Juleigh has a great play by play account of what happened during the storm so I've included it below. I hope you enjoy and if you want more of her blog you can find it here:

More blogs written by me coming soon.

During training, Peace Corps does a good job at preparing us for the worst possible situations we may face as volunteers. One of the things we go over again and again is the “Emergency Action Plan” (EAP). The four stages of the EAP are stand fast (stay at your site, no traveling), consolidate (bring everyone in your island group to the consolidation point), evacuate (leave your island) and all clear (you are free to go home). While we all studied and understood what each of these stages meant, we were told that consolidation rarely happens (hasn’t happened here since 2006). When we heard that a cyclone was on its way, not in my wildest dreams did I expect what later ensued.

3:00pm Call comes from Todd (our emergency coordinator); all Ha’apai PCV’s are to report to our consolidation point.
At this point, none of us on Ha’apai had ever had to consolidate before. We were told by the Safety and Security Coordinator at the Peace Corps office that the cyclone was a category 3, headed straight for Tonga and that it would be hitting very early morning on Sunday. It was a bright and sunny Saturday, you wouldn’t know by looking at the sky that a cyclone was coming.
5:00pm All 10 volunteers are accounted for at Todd’s.

I had grabbed enough clothes for 3 days, my computer and hard drive (knowing there would be lots of time for movies), Into Thin Air, bible, journal, toiletries, some snacks from my latest package, some candles and my lantern, 3 bottles of water and I loaded my phone up with credit. Everyone’s spirits were high; Blair and Sarah had made it in from the outer islands. I had put all of my things into a cab with the other’s stuff and walked over to Todd’s while talking to Caitlin. I also had a skype date scheduled with Mary and her kids. I was actually more worried about missing that date than getting ready for the cyclone! (I did get to have that skype date with the internet at Todd’s!) The internet was working for a few hours; we lost it at around8:30pm.
We ate dinner and went to bed. All of this time, we were receiving phone calls from our office in Nuku’alofa with updates. The storm was very slow moving. We had expected it early Sunday morning. We had sleeping bags, mats and air mattresses strewn about the house. Sleeping was just fine on Saturday night.

SUNDAY, 2/14

10:00am Storm proofing and reorganizing begins.
We are all waiting patiently for the storm. Having never been in a cyclone, none of us knew exactly what to expect. We had heard that it was a category 3-4 storm, with winds from 150-200 MPH. Our cell service was still working so I was keeping up with the volunteers in Vava’u. The storm would hit them first, coming from the North East. It was actually still sunny at this point in both Vava’u and Ha’apai, this made it hard to brace for the worst. It would drizzle off and on, but for the most part, it was clear.
2:00pm Lunch time
It wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t tell you about the food! Alyssa made us cilantro burgers with homemade buns and french fries! Ifo! Still no cyclone. PC is calling, telling us it will now be here at 6pm.
4:00pm Taping windows and tarp goes up
We decide that since there are so many window panes (opportunities for water to come in), we will use the cardboard from some boxes to seal the windows. We get a call saying that this is a strong category 4 storm. We also put the tarp up over the main windows in Todd’s living room. We put it inside thinking that if it’s outside, it will be ripped off. It takes us some time to figure it out, but it gets up. Windows all over the house are layered with cardboard and shut. Koichi joins us (JICA volunteer).
5:00pm Dr. Who, West Wing and Law & Order SVU viewings (no cyclone)
6:00pm No Cyclone
9:00pm Dinner (eggplant parm) & no cyclone
10:00pm Electricity goes out (so does running water)
11:30pm “Twister” viewing (very apropos) and……No Cyclone!
1:00am All are in bed.
It was not easy to sleep. We had been told by PC that it would come early morning on Monday at this point. They continued to call us throughout the night. The wind had picked up and the bushes were hitting the side of the house in the room I was in. The wind whipped across the house and it was so hot because all of our windows were closed, it was a rough night.
4:00am PC calls, Cyclone Rene has hit neighboring island Vava’u

Todd takes the call from Peace Corps; we now know the cyclone is close. We stay in bed until around 6am and then put the finishing touches on the house. (Oatmeal and hazelnut coffee for breakfast…I even drank it black!)
6:00am Koichi wakes up soaking wet
It has begun.
9:00am All mats/bag/belongings cleared out of living room
The rain is now coming into the house because of the windows and high winds. We decided to move all of our things into Todd’s bedroom to keep everything dry (“dry” nothing is ever completely dry in Tonga).
10:00am Tarp needs to be fixed
The tarp is brining too much water into the house and it’s filling the front room up. John does a good job trying to rig it so that we can funnel the water into buckets. It works for a little while but the water is coming in too fast. We have buckets, mops, dust pans and brooms to get the water out. We open the front door and are now trying to get the water out as fast as we can. Grant is against the bedroom wall protecting that seal (so that we don’t get water in that room). Everyone is pitching in, just trying to get the water out.
10:10am Table placed in front of the door
We notice that the front door is not going to stay closed. We put the table in front of it in case it blows open. At this point we are on the floor in the living room trying to get as much water up as possible.
10:30am Cardboard in the bedroom
We are afraid that our “dry room” is going to be compromised. We set up tarps and add cardboard and duct tape to the windows.
10:50am Bottom of front door rips off
This is now pretty serious, the guys to a great job taking the door off, getting the kitchen door and putting that on the front door. Note: at this critical juncture, Villiami walks over from down the street (I work with him at the govs office) just to see what we are doing. We are smiling, but the winds are VERY strong. He chatted for a while as the guys were putting the door up. We just thought it was funny that he wasn’t at HIS house doing the same things we were.
11:00am New tarp strategy and give up on the kitchen
Too much water is coming into the house. We decide to take the tarp outside. People are on top of other people’s shoulders to get the tarp nailed above the windows. I couldn’t take a picture of this because the winds were so strong and the water was still flowing into the house. Also, the living room was filling so quickly that we decided to give up on the kitchen and let the water come in.
11:15am Rain stops, eye of the storm?
While putting our second tarp outside, the rain stops and the winds die down. We are unsure if this is the eye of the storm or just a break. We have been told that it’s only a break. We are all so tired from bailing water, we all need a rest. We take a few minutes then try to get the remaining water out of the living room. We go back into the kitchen and bail all of the water from there, sweep the hall ways and secure the tarps and add mats to the outside side windows.
12:00pm Is this the end?
Cell phone service is back up. I text the volunteers in Vava’u, they say it should be over. PC calls and says that’s only round one, round two is on its way.
1:00pm Round 2?
Winds pick up but rain stays away. We are exhausted and soaking wet. Water bubbles start to form on the ceiling.
3:00pm Cyclone is over
The wind is still strong, we don’t have electricity or running water, but the cyclone seems to have passed us.
The rest of the night, we continue to mop and clean. The house is musty but most of the water is out. We eat dinner and retire to separate rooms to relax and debrief the day. Peace Corps says to hang in there through one more night. We are ready to be done with this thing. One more night together.
6am Todd gets the “All Clear” call
We are released to go home. But, the house is still in shambles. We take everything outside, sweep, mop and scrub almost every inch of the house. We get home around 1. Remember that each of us has our own homes to clean now.
The nuns were so kind to put boards on my windows and towels on my floors. I had very little water come into my rooms, no damage done. I still don’t have electricity or running water, probably won’t have it until Thursday. Our office was also a disaster. We spent the rest of the afternoon pulling carpet out of there. It’s been a very long few days. I will say though, I was impressed by almost every single person in our group of 10. We all pitched in and got it done. In the end, I think we had a successful first cyclone experience. But I am glad it’s over and I am glad to be sleeping in my own bed.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cyclone Rene

I'm too exhausted to write much but I just want to update everyone quickly. On Saturday we were warned of a looming cyclone headed directly for the islands of Tonga. All of the volunteers in Ha'apai were told to consolidate to my house since it is at the highest elevation and is the strongest structure of any of the volunteer houses. Nine volunteers quickly came over with a ton of supplies to weather the storm, which ended up being a category 4 cyclone out of 5, 5 causing catastrophic damage. The storm lined up and hit us with its full force of 143 mile per hour winds and kept all ten of us confined to my house for 63 hours without running water or electricity. My house stood up well to the storm other than my front door which was ripped off and sent across my yard. Since the storm we have started a short recovery process and have gone around to each others houses and our office to begin cleaning up. The damage to our houses and around town is minimal. Only a few power lines and trees are down and several poor quality houses fell down. At this point it sounds like nobody was seriously injured. Over the course of 63 hours a ton happened and I have some great stories, pictures and a movie to show in the next few days. More info in about 3 days, the amount I will probably sleep after I publish this blog.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New Pictures!!

It was finally cool enough to take a bunch of pictures around town so I snapped a bunch of pics and wrote a lot of captions to give a little tour of Pangai. Enjoy!

Learning how to teach

I just finished my third week of teaching and I cannot describe how relieved I am to be done. Teaching is tough! Before the semester begun, I discussed with my counterpart, Tok’a how I would like to begin teaching. We noted that I had no teaching experience and had never observed a Tongan classroom. We decided that it would be best for me to observe classes for the first three to four weeks and then begin co-teaching with another teacher in the classroom once I felt comfortable. I would continue teaching more and more and eventually I would be given my own classes.

The Peace Corps has a specific approach to development and does not want volunteers teaching alone. This ensures that volunteers are not taking away a local jobs and it allows volunteers to learn from local teachers and vise-versa. The reality here in Tonga is that there is simply not enough money to fund the schools. Schools have almost no money for maintenance or supplies and almost all of the funds go to paying teacher salaries. The schools can only afford so many teachers and most schools are left needing more teachers than they have. My school requested four additional teachers to help cover all of the classes but they know that their requests fall on deaf ears and the education budget simply makes it in impossible. Most of the teachers here teach five out of six periods a day and some even teach all six several days a week. It is a demanding schedule and as a volunteer hoping to start projects outside of the classroom, it was a schedule I was not interested in joining.

The first day of school came and went three weeks ago and I was given four classes to teach, all different and all requiring a new lesson plan everyday, not exactly what I talked about with my counterpart. The next few days were daunting for me, especially during the first week since the daily schedules were only posted minutes before the school day started. Not only was I teaching for the first time ever but I had no idea which classes I would be teaching each day or how long the periods would be. Some days my classes were twenty minutes and others were fifty. I asked the teachers what was going on with the schedule but I could never get a straight answer. Sometimes they would tell me they did not know the schedule and other times they told me that we would have twenty-minute periods and we would end up having fifty-minute classes. I suspect that there was not a schedule at all. After the first few days of that, I decided to make rolling lesson plans and planned large sections of material so I would never run out.

Some of my classes went well and in others, I fell flat on my face and my lessons bombed. Prior to figuring it out in the classroom, I had no idea what level my students were at. I tried to give them initial assessments but even those were tough as well. It is tough to get Tongan students to talk and when they do talk many of them talk softly and I cannot quite understand their English accents yet and sometimes they just cannot understand what I am asking for. My first few classes were all over the place, some were too hard, and others were too simple. I changed things around and after a few tries I actually had a bunch of good lessons.

As soon as I saw my schedule with many more classes than I had initially discussed I went to my counterpart Tok’a and had a discussion with him. He told me not to worry and that the schedule had to be worked out and eventually I would have fewer classes to teach and more time to observe. I worked through three weeks with four lessons and stayed up late every night trying to figure out how I could explain my lessons to the students. It is difficult to compare and contrast a free market economy to a planned economy to students who live on an island with little economy at all to speak of.

I kept talking to Tok’a and other teachers about my schedule and asked when I could get one of my classes taken away. They kept says yes, yes, yes, we’ll take one away, but nothing ever happened. After almost three weeks of teaching four classes, I decided that something actually had to happen. I need more time at night to study Tongan and to spend meeting and talking with the other teachers and my community. It is often the Tongan way to wait for tomorrow to fix something and when tomorrow comes you make a deal to do it the next day and so on. Enough was enough so I laid out all the reasons why I needed to drop one class and made it clear that I was not a replacement teacher, my deputy principle listened and actually took away a class. It was magic. I went in this morning and I only had to teach two classes which gave me time to observe two other classes. It was exactly what I needed. I learned a ton from simply observing two classes today.

During our first assembly on the first day of school the principal implements a new rule that all classes and all conversation on the school compound would have to now be completely in English. It is a great goal since the school I am at aims to be college preparatory and the regional exam to get into university and all university classes in the region are in English. The only problem is that the kids do not have a good enough working knowledge of English to do it. At first, I did not realize that. I have been teaching all of my classes in English and have only talked to the kids in English. As a native English speaker, I figured that I would be a great example for them to listen to. After observing two classes, today I quickly realized my mistake and learned that I will have to teach bilingually. Getting that one class dropped gave me enough extra time to observe other classes and realize some things I need to change and even better, I can now act on what I need to change and begin studying more Tongan so I can teach bilingually more effectively. So, that is a short wrap up of my teaching experience so far. More next week.