Community rallies to rebuild Berkeley teacher’s home after Tonga tsunami

The Bayhill High School teacher’s home in Tonga was damaged in the tsunami.

Bayhill High School science teacher Mele Satini was en route to Tonga to visit her husband when a tsunami hit, causing extensive damage to the Tongan islands. Credit: Bayhill High School

Mele Satini was en route to visit her husband, Halisi, on the Tongan island of Tongatapu when an underwater volcano erupted, triggering a massive tsunami that caused extensive damage to the island, including the couple’s home.

Satini, who teaches at Bayhill, a private high school in Berkeley, hadn’t returned to Tonga in three years, due to COVID-19 restrictions. On Jan. 15, she was in Fiji, awaiting a flight scheduled for the following day.

As the tsunami caused by the Hunga-Tonga-Huga Ha’apai eruption approached the island, Satini exchanged text messages with her husband. He sent her photos of volcanic rocks sailing down near their home. Then, nothing, as the disaster severed the island’s cell service and internet connection with the rest of the world.

In the days that followed, Satini frantically tried to reach anyone on the island, hoping for a sign that her husband had survived the disaster.

It was four days before she finally heard back: He was alive and safe. Their home, as well as the elementary school across the street, had been damaged, everything covered in a thick layer of volcanic ash and rock. They had a lot of work ahead of them, but they would do it together.

Shelley Lobell, the now-retired executive director of Bayhill High School, had read the news about the disaster, which reverberated across the Pacific Ocean and triggered a tsunami advisory in the Berkeley Marina, and thought immediately of Satini.

Satini had been teaching science at Bayhill, a high school for students with learning differences like dyslexia and ADHD, for about a decade. Lobell remained close with Satini after her retirement as director, and reached out to her when the disaster struck.

“She’s very near and dear to the Bayhill community, and the Bayhill community is very tight-knit,” Lobell said.

As Satini was waiting for news about her husband, Lobell organized a GoFundMe to raise money in support of the beloved teacher. The funds would go toward rebuilding the couple’s home, including establishing an internet connection and freshwater, as well as toward rebuilding the elementary school across the street from their home.

Donations from parents and even students poured into the GoFundMe page, which has raised more than $8,700 to date.

“Mrs. Satini has been such a good teacher to me, and doing whatever it takes to help out, I’ll do it,” one student wrote in a note with her donation. A parent thanked Satini for making “a huge difference in [her] son’s attitude about science class and school.”

The United States has given $2.5 million to Tonga in disaster relief aid. The aid shipments, which have provided much-needed freshwater and food, have also increased the risk that COVID-19 could spread throughout the islands. Tonga is one of the few countries that has not had a single outbreak of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, thanks to stringent travel restrictions.

Satini has been teaching remotely since arriving in Fiji. Due to the omicron surge, Bayhill High School has held classes online. Students are scheduled to return in person Jan. 31.

Although Satini had originally planned to return in person after spending a few weeks with her husband in Tonga, she will now teach remotely for the remainder of the school year. She plans to fly to Tonga as soon as possible and help rebuild her home, continuing to teach Bayhill students virtually.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.