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Image: supplied. Additional design: Tina Tiller.
Image: supplied. Additional design: Tina Tiller.

SocietyFebruary 1, 2022

Better safe than sorry: Building supply stockpile pays off for Tongan rebuild

Image: supplied. Additional design: Tina Tiller.
Image: supplied. Additional design: Tina Tiller.

When the tsunami hit Tonga, many wondered how this island nation could cope. But one Tongan businessman was quietly confident his friends and family would be OK, knowing he’d spent the last three years preparing for such an event.

Late on a sweltering hot Friday afternoon, you could excuse TROW group chief executive Saia Latu for wanting to reschedule our interview and check out for the week. 

But when I arrive, Latu’s infectious energy is reverberating around this office as he introduces me to staff, gets me a drink and launches into an impassioned description of what his company has been doing to help rebuild efforts back in his homeland of Tonga. This follows the devastating Hunga-Ha’apai and Hunga-Tonga eruption and ensuing tsunami on January 15, which wiped out entire villages, covered much of the country in volcanic ash and left tens of thousands without shelter or access to water.  

The Māngere College old boy, who emigrated here as an eight-year-old and whose firms run deconstruction and civil engineering operations both here in Auckland and in Tonga, says even though he never imagined a volcano could cause so much damage, he’s been gearing up for a natural disaster ever since he saw the destruction caused by Cyclone Gita in 2018. 

“When cyclone Gita hit I was on the first available plane to Tonga to help with the rebuild and [since then] I’ve worked on what we need to do more to be better prepared for if another natural disaster hits Tonga again,” he says. 

The container yard where TROW Group has been stockpiling building materials for a natural disaster (Photo: Supplied)

Three years later, he has a team of trained builders, backed up by $3 million worth of equipment including onsite generators, pumps to clear water, tractors, diggers and a pile driver, along with 30 shipping containers of materials. 

“My only regret is that we don’t have satellite phones, so when we finally managed to call our people, we could only speak once or twice a day for a couple of minutes each time before the line cut out,” he says.

TROW Group, as profiled in The Spinoff in 2020, is one of Auckland Council’s largest deconstruction contractors and has repurposed more than 500 tonnes of building materials over the last four years to be used for projects in Tonga. Along with building schools, community facilities and churches, his firm has also been stockpiling supplies for such a time as this, Latu says.

“Every time we bring out material, we always leave some aside. Maybe about 30% of all the materials that we send over gets put aside for natural disasters.”

TROW Group has $3 million worth of equipment in Tonga to help with the rebuild efforts (Photo: Supplied)

He says when the tsunami first hit, he was shocked and worried for the safety of his family and staff, but he was also confident they could get through. 

“I was worried about family but because our families are on the other side of the island [from where the tsunami hit], we knew that they were prepared so as soon as it hit, I knew it was as simple as flicking a switch in terms of using the materials that were already there.”

Even though the tsunami didn’t directly hit the villages where his team live, there was still a lot of damage from volcanic ash and minor flooding. But he says work is well under way to ensure families have shelter and access to power and water. 

“A lot of our team have had their houses damaged and so now the clean-up is done, we’ll start fixing the houses. They’ll do their own houses first and then start to help others.” 

TROW Group founder and chief executive Saia Latu (Photo: Justin Latif)

With details on the government’s rebuild plans still filtering through, Latu says he’s keen to be part of the reconstruction process as this can be an opportunity for the country to build better infrastructure.

“The aid is good for getting the water but we can’t just keep relying on other countries. Right now we have an opportunity and the government needs to have a plan,” he says. 

“We’ll be able to keep sending stuff over. But it will be a slow process and it all just depends on funding, as the shipping prices have doubled.”

Latu admits that with the ever-present pressures of climate change, he’s also started to think how his firm could be useful in New Zealand if a natural disaster were to hit. 

“I’m now just set up for Tonga, but if there’s a natural disaster in New Zealand, I’m working on a project developing tiny homes that pop up and are made of recycled materials and could be easily delivered.”

The plans are still in the prototype stage, but Latu knows all too well that the next natural disaster is always just around the corner.

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