Twenty-four hours before Ha’atafu Beach Resort in Tonga was destroyed by a tsunami, one Navy officer stood at the shoreline and renewed her marriage vows.

Lieutenant Commander Makaila Lasalo remembered the moment the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted.

“It was still daylight when we heard the first bang. I’ve never heard anything that loud in my life,” Lieutenant Commander Lasalo said.

“I remember looking up and seeing a huge plume of ash.

“The whole compound shook. Pressure waves from each bang made our ears pop, like we were underwater. My five-and six-year-old daughters were crying, screaming and covering their ears.”

Celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary inside the Australian Defence compound in Nuku’alofa, Lieutenant Commander Lasalo said the sky went pitch black as a volcanic cloud engulfed the island.

“It rained pumice, which sounded like heavy hail, followed by ash. Patrick [her husband] stood at the gate with an umbrella ushering in people seeking shelter,” she said.

More than 90 people sought shelter at the compound in the first 24 hours.

By the next morning, 12cm of ash covered the compound.

Lieutenant Commander Lasalo said the internet and international phone lines dropped out 20 minutes after the first explosion. It was five weeks before Tongans could reconnect. 

She recalled acts of bravery among the Tongans, including Sergeant Viliami Taufa, from the Tongan Royal Navy, who took control of their only landing craft, the VOEA Late, as the tsunamis hit.

With no previous experience, he safely sailed the boat out of Masefield Navy Base as the tsunamis crashed in.

“Sergeant Taufa sailed between the first and second waves, saving not only the lives of those on board but also one of Tonga’s most valuable humanitarian and disaster response assets,” Lieutenant Commander Lasalo said.

A Royal Australian Navy sailor from HMAS Supply clears debris on Nomuka Island, Tonga, during Operation Tonga Assist 2022. Photo: Leading Seaman Rye Huckel

The VOEA Late, along with the rest of the Tongan fleet, went on to play an instrumental role in His Majesty’s Armed Forces’ humanitarian response in Tonga’s outer islands. 

Lieutenant Commander Lasalo’s primary role in Tonga is supporting operation and sustainment of Tonga’s Australian-gifted landing craft and two Guardian-class patrol boats.

In the immediate aftermath, the boats were used to conduct initial damage assessment, evacuate the injured and to deliver Australian Aid supplies to people on the outer islands. 

Crews sailing the boats rescued 48 people from sea and outer islands that were completely levelled by the tsunami on the first night.

After the volcanic eruption and tsunami, Lieutenant Commander Lasalo’s role as the Royal Australian Navy’s Maritime Surveillance Adviser in Tonga grew in scope.

“I was fortunate to have one of a few working satellite phones and became the only communication link between the Tongan Royal Navy fleet, the Tongan Government and the ADF in the immediate aftermath.

“My role has been international liaison and coordinator of foreign military assets arriving in the country to assist in disaster relief missions on behalf of His Majesty’s Armed Forces."

She helped coordinate the international response by linking local and foreign organisations active in the humanitarian effort, while ensuring the Government of Tonga had visibility of the extent of the damage and recovery effort.

COVID lockdowns also added another layer of complexity.

“Like many other parents across the country, my husband and I were trying to home-school with no internet; cook, clean, shop and make sure the compound was safe for all the families and evacuees,” she said.

Lieutenant Commander Lasalo and the ADF team continue to support Tonga in the recovery and reconstruction phase.

Before the disaster, Lieutenant Commander Lasalo was instrumental in helping the integration of women into operational seagoing roles in the Tongan Royal Navy.