8 Mar 2018

Damage to Tonga 'devastating', Ardern says

10:45 am on 8 March 2018

In a short trip to Tonga, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spent most of her day visiting Cyclone Gita-hit areas.

The Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern Prime Minister of New Zealand inspects the re-build programme at Pili village after cyclone Gita.

The Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern Prime Minister of New Zealand inspects the re-build programme at Pili village after cyclone Gita. Photo: Pool / Michael Craig

The biggest event was at Fasi Government School, where hundreds of children sat in makeshift tents the school has been forced to use after the cyclone destroyed several classrooms.

More than half of the schools in Tonga were damaged by the cyclone and Ms Ardern has now pledged $7 million to help rebuild as well as provide items such as books.

At Fasi school, Ms Ardern was visibly taken aback to see firsthand just how bad the damage was.

"You can still see the pictures on the walls," she said.

Damage at the FASI Government School.

Damage at the FASI Government School. Photo: New Zealand Herald

The classroom she was walking through was only a skeleton. The roof had been torn off, the wooden frame exposed, and the rot had set in.

"The amount of damage to the inside of the classrooms is incredibly devastating.

"And to still see the children's work hanging ... must be really tough for the students and the teachers to still be in the environment."

School principal Pomona Hui said she hoped New Zealand would rebuild her classrooms.

"Maybe someone will come build our house to prepare us for the future?" she said.

Ms Ardern met with the Tongan Prime Minister Akilisi Pōhiva this morning, and described the discussions as "really positive".

Damage at the FASI Government School.

Damage at the FASI Government School. Photo: Pool photo / Michael Craig / New Zealand Herald

But two prominent Tongans are out of the country. King Tupou VI and deputy Prime Minister Semisi Lafu Kioa Sika were both visiting China - which has committed aid of more than $US170m, much of it in loans - in the ten years to 2016.

The International Monetary Fund has noted that Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu all have significant debt to China, but Ms Ardern said that topic was not discussed with the Tongan Prime Minister today.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters has also announced $11m of funding to complete the first stage of the upgrade to Nukualofa's electricity network.

The Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern Prime Minister of New Zealand inspects the re-build programme at Pili village after cyclone Gita.

Jacinda Ardern views the upgrades to Tonga's power network at Pili village. Photo: Pool / Michael Craig

Tonga Power chief executive Robert Matthews said most of the CBD - where 4000 people remain without power - was still on the old network and an upgrade would make a big difference.

"As compared to an old system that you see up there, which is a whole bunch of separate cables, so now they're all combined into one big cable.

"Normally that could take days to restore a whole street just like that so it [now] happens within just minutes."

Ms Ardern is now off to Rarotonga, the last stop in her Pacific Mission trip.

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