Updates trickle in from Tonga as Utah Tongan families look for ways to help

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SALT LAKE CITY — After a weekend spent glued to her computer, waiting for any updates from her home in Tonga, Verna Tukuafu is starting to get word of the devastation left behind by a volcanic eruption and ensuing tsunamis.

"What we do know is that the main island was hit hard. Tongatapu was hit hard, mainly the coastal line," Tukuafu relayed.

She owns a home on Tongatapu, which she described as being located inland and likely not damaged by any tsunamis.

Tukuafu has been temporarily staying in Utah during the pandemic, after a two-week trip turned into a two-year stay when Tonga closed its borders in 2020 and has yet to reopen to travelers.

Videos posted on social media show damage from tsunamis in the Ha'apai region of the country. Those are some of the first videos she's been able to see since all communication was cut off following the eruption.

Water breached the coastal areas and flooded businesses and homes. The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano's plume darkened the sky, with reports that ash and volcanic rock rained down on everything in sight.

Tukuafu wasted no time figuring out what her country may need help with from this natural disaster. She explained how she met via Zoom with contacts in New Zealand on Saturday, to talk about what needs to be shipped to Tonga.

"It is clean water," she said, of what she's been hearing. "Now, the challenge is how do we get that clean water into the island? And also masks because of the ashes that they're having throughout the country."

Fahina Tavake-Pasi, executive director of the Utah-based nonprofit National Tongan American Society, is also focused on what comes next. She is looking toward cleanup and rebuilding, and how Utahns can help.

"Now we're kind of getting over the shockwave. Now I think it's more into the action mode," Tavake-Pasi said. "This is reality. Now what do we do? What can we do to help?"

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is beginning to answer that question. The church has a huge presence in Tonga, a country that, according to the church, has the most Latter-day Saints per capita of any nation in the world.

Now we're kind of getting over the shockwave. Now I think it's more into the action mode.

–Fahina Tavake-Pasi, executive director of the nonprofit National Tongan American Society

In a post on Monday New Zealand time, which is a day ahead of Utah, the church explained that it is ready to help in humanitarian efforts in the days and weeks to come.

"The church will assist in the distribution of 50,000 donated masks, already in Tonga, sent previously for pandemic purposes," the post stated. "The masks are being distributed to prevent the inhaling of the volcanic dust."

Tavake-Pasi is also hearing of other efforts already in the works locally.

"Today, one of the LDS churches already has a big old container full of food and things that they will be shipping out," she said.

She, like Tukuafu, is also starting to hear a few updates from Tonga. Tavake-Pasi explained that someone was able to call from Tonga via satellite phone, and that she was comforted by his main message that he wanted to share.

"Everybody's OK and that they're just working through things. But the most important was that he was saying there was no deaths. No deaths during the tsunami," she said. "Which I think is just a miracle."

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Lauren Steinbrecher
Lauren Steinbrecher is an Emmy award-winning reporter and multimedia journalist who joined KSL in December 2021.


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