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Tropical Cyclone Gita in Tonga: Disability or ability?

Tropical Cyclone Gita in Tonga: Disability or ability?

On 13th of February 2017, Tropical Cyclone Gita with wind speeds of up to 270km and hour made landfall on the islands of Tongatapu and Eu’a in Tonga causing significant damage to homes, water sources and crops. cbm New Zealand Programmes Officer Karen Jack deployed as part of a team led by the Pacific Disability Forum to identify how children and adults with disabilities were impacted. Four months on, Karen reflects on the experience, and the plan to ensure no one misses out on much needed assistance.

In March, members from organisations of persons with disabilities in Tonga, called DPOs, visited villages throughout the island of Tongatapu to conduct a needs assessment survey of over 230 children and adults with disabilities affected by TC Gita. Many of those surveyed reported they were unable to evacuate from their homes because there were no suitable vehicles to take them, most of the evacuation centres were not accessible, or simply, they didn’t have mobility devices like wheelchairs and walking frames to leave their homes. Houses were damaged, which increased the risk of injury. Even though temporary solutions like being re-housed in tents, repairs to roofs with tarpaulins and borrowing the toilet and bathroom facilities of neighbours, much still needs to be done. 

Disasters like this offer the possibility to “build back better” – homes and evacuation centres that are accessible for all, and persons with disabilities connected with national healthcare services and assistance schemes. No emergency is a good emergency, but in this case, devastating Tropical Cyclone Gita has provided the opportunity to pilot in the Pacific Region recommendations from the recently released Humanitarian Inclusion Standards for Older People and People with Disabilities. Recognising capacity and ability rather than disability, these standards call for active participation from people with disabilities. 

Members of the DPOs on Tongatapu remain positive and are keen to contribute to the response. As one DPO member said, “Everything is gone. But I’m still smiling because I survived! That’s the main thing.”  It may take some time, but the DPOs are confident that findings from the needs assessment will be influential to ensure people with disabilities are included. Already the government of Tonga and a number of local organisations and international NGOs from New Zealand like Oxfam, Tear Fund, Habitat for Humanity and Caritas have shown their support by piloting the mechanism to linke DOP’s to response programmes with cbm New Zealand. This is an exciting opportunity to increase collaboration and reach people at most risk. The hope is for results to be long enduring in Tonga, and far-reaching throughout the Pacific.”


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