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Tonga desperately needs money and building materials, 'not teddy bears'

Cyclone-devastated Tongans needs cash, nails, and wood — “not teddy bears”, say frustrated aid coordinators on the ground.

Containers of donations from New Zealand to Tonga are flowing, but the good will is proving more of a hindrance than a help.

The island kingdom has enough clothes, books, food, and second hand furniture, said logistics expert Graham Kenna from the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO).

“It's just creating a backlog in the pipeline," he said. "What Tonga needs is money to stimulate the economy, and building materials.”

Cyclone Gita ravaged Tonga on the night of February 12: It ripped roofs off thousands of homes, flattening churches and schools, and left the already under-resourced nation in turmoil.

While there were difficulties getting emergency aid to those most in need in Gita's aftermath, Tongans on the whole were grateful to be alive and thanked God for taking their houses not lives.

Just over two weeks on in the island's recovery, Kenna wanted to set well-meaning donors from overseas on the right track to help.

“We're getting lots of things that are totally unnecessary — it's just people's rubbish that they've taken out of their garage and it's no use to anyone,” he said.

“Please, just send money.”

Kenna emphasised that while containers of aid were being fast-tracked through customs "as much as possible", they still took time to get fumigated and quarantined.

“We're going to need a lot of building materials but we're not going to be able to get them because there are containers of second hand books and teddy-bears lying around.”

Money, on the other hand, would help stimulate the island's stalling economy: “it will be spent here, getting local businesses back on their feet, which is good for everyone.”

Alternatively, Kenna recommended fundraising for much-needed nails, metal strapping, sheets of tin, and 4x2 timber.

“By all means, fill a container with that and send it over ... I will personally make sure it gets to where it needs to go,” he said.

“Building materials are going to be needed for months and months and months in Tonga — not teddy bears, not food, not clothes.”

Schools were one of NEMO's priorities to get up and running again; large tents would become make-shift classrooms for many.

Kenna said that eighty-five of Tonga's around 140 schools were left “somewhere between unusable and totally destroyed” after the cyclone.

Getting kids back together to “talk through what happened” was a vital part of their healing process, he said.

The principal of ACTS Community School in Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital, said she feared the cyclone would have a devastating and long-term effect on Tongans' education.

Kiwi Kathryn Smith-Tupau some schools were considering closing either temporarily or forever due to structural damage, and that both students and staff were preoccupied with rebuilding their own homes.

Her school lost part of its roof and several classrooms during the cyclone. It was left extensively flooded for more than a week — Smith-Tupau said while the government had since drained most of the water, the premises were still too water logged for students to return to.

“While we're waiting for it to dry out — and tents — we're keeping lessons going by rotating students through private houses and another school's hall,” she said.

Smith-Tupau said there were "plenty of willing donors" for school supplies and that her school was passing a surplus onto others.

“Our biggest hurdle is building materials and the cost of freight.”

South Auckland builder Saia Latu hails from Tonga and flew over to help in the cyclone's immediate aftermath.

He echoed Kenna and Smith-Tupau's views that funding and building materials were the priority.

Now back in New Zealand, Latu was coordinating containers of aid and teams of building experts to send to Tonga. He had already shipped two 40ft container loads of building materials, machinery, and furniture for schools since the cyclone.

He had also supplied two heavy duty pumps to help drain the remaining stagnant floodwater, which had risen over the last few days due to rain.

The water made ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos – which carry the deadly tropical virus dengue fever – and their larvae had already been spotted in some areas.

Tonga's Ministry of Health was working to stockpile dengue treatment, and mosquito nets were a high priority item for aid distributors such as the Red Cross and Nemo.

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