Like many of us, the 8,500 or so Tongans living in Hawaiʻi were shocked to see satellite footage of the massive underwater eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano January 15, which formed a mushroom cloud seen from space and generated a tsunami that affected distant shores across the Pacific, from Japan to Hawaiʻi, and all the way the US Mainland.
Making matters worse, the eruption–and the resulting 50-foot wave that smashed into Tongan shores, sending residents running in terror–knocked out cellular communications throughout the island kingdom and damaged the trans-Pacific fiber optic cable that provides its citizens with internet access. Unable to reach loved ones back home, Hawaiʻi residents of Tongan descent began to focus on stockpiling aid for the devastated country, where virtually everything was covered with a thick layer of grey ash. While only three confirmed deaths were initially reported, there were many injured, and dozens still remained missing at press time, two weeks after the eruption.
“Telephone service has been restored, for the most part, but internet service is still spotty,” said Annie Kaneshiro, the honorary consular agent for the Kingdom of Tonga in Honolulu. She has been helping Hawaiʻi residents with family and friends in Tonga reach out to their loved ones, at times routing calls through the Australian and Fijian embassies because they were the only ones reachable by phone. Tonga’s Haʻapai and Vava’u island groups were only reachable by satellite phone as of press time.
US government officials initially sent a $100,000 contribution to the Tonga Red Cross Society, which took the lead in providing aid in the first days following the eruption, followed by a $2.5 million contribution from the US State Department’s Agency for International Development. But even as aid began to flow, local residents wanting to send supplies that they had begun to stockpile at local churches and neighbor’s garages were stymied by the logistical challenge of transporting the items to Tonga.
In an effort to remain Covid-19-free–one of few places on Earth that can claim that–Tonga has closed its borders since the global pandemic began. Even some of its own citizens have been stranded in nearby Australia and other countries due to the drastic measure. The first repatriation flight for Tongans who have been stuck in Australia, some separated from family members for more than a year, was planned for January 20, but got canceled due to the eruption.
It took several days just to clear the runway at Fuaʻamotu International Airport, the country’s largest, situated on the south side of the main island, Tongatapu, about 12 miles from the capital city of Nukuʻalofa. The nation’s ports were even worse off, having taken the brunt of the shock wave that triggered the tsunami. According to the International Tsunami Information Center, only five percent of the so-called “tidal waves” are the result of volcanic activity. Eighty percent are caused by earthquakes.
As Maui Tongans sought some way to ship their emergency supplies to their families and friends in the isolated archipelago, State Senator Dru Kanuha reached out to US military officials about helping to deliver the supplies. Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights to Tonga to assess the damage, and dispatched military transport planes loaded with much-needed drinking water and other emergency supplies.
Kihei resident and former Maui Time staffer, Marina Satoafaiga, who has both Tongan and Samoan ancestry (what she calls “a double whammy” in Hawaiian culture) has been able to speak to her cousin, Pelela Tokelau, on Tongatapu and she said that her family there is doing okay, all things considered, but facing a long, slow recovery. “It’s pretty catastrophic,” she said, “but super grateful that they are alive and the road to recovery is beginning.”
“It’s clear as mud right now, how exactly people are able to assist,” said Satoafiaga. She suggested that people who want to help Tongans recover from the disaster consider making a donation to the Tonga Red Cross or another NGO with boots already on the ground supporting rural development in the islands, like the MORDI Tonga Trust.