Soane Halama was on a video call with his mother when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption blackened the skies over his family home in Tonga.

The Kailua resident’s mother, who lives on the northeastern area of Tonga’s most populous island, was trying to prepare for an emergency when she was knocked off her feet by the explosion. Small rocks and ash rained from the sky and their rainwater tank, where they get their water, had turned black with ash.

Soane, 36, and his wife Ana Halama are two of many in the Hawaii community concerned about their Tongan families’ wellbeing after the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Volcano erupted violently on Saturday. The eruption sent tsunami waves across the low-lying island of Tongatapu and severed the Pacific nation’s communication lines with the outside world.

Tonga Geological Services staff observe Hunga Tonga on Thursday. Tonga Geological Services/2022

Videos shared across social media show coastal areas inundated with tsunami waves, while the force of the eruption was also felt as far as Hawaii and Alaska.

“They lost connection and everybody was just going crazy because they want to make sure their families are OK,” said Ana Halama, who has family in the northern band of islands called Haapai.

The 37-year-old Queens Hospital service representative said in an interview Sunday she has been unable to get any real updates from Tonga and is relying upon news from the New Zealand High Commission, which along with Australia, has a satellite internet connection.

Tonga’s main means of communication was cut, a 524-mile fiber-internet cable connecting the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, to a trans-Pacific cable in Suva, Fiji. It could take days or weeks to fix it.

While no deaths have been officially confirmed in Tonga, Reuters reported that two people in Peru drowned due to unusually high waves after the underwater eruption.

The island nation of 105,000 residents lies 3,130 miles southwest of Hawaii, about 1,481 miles northeast of New Zealand, and has a relatively significant diaspora in the U.S., predominantly in Utah and Hawaii.

What little communication that has come out of Tonga has detailed devastation of coastal properties.

Tonga’s diaspora around the world has been sending prayers in lieu of any direct communication, according to Rev. Filimone Ma’u of Waipahu Hawaii Tongan Assembly Of God.

All of Ma’u’s siblings and their children remain in Tonga and there is much anxiety among the 55 or so Tongans in his congregation — everyone has family in the islands.

“Tongans are mostly Christian people … connected together in one group praying for the islands, waiting for any news to come,” Ma’u said Sunday.

Relief Efforts

Australia and New Zealand have stepped up to help in the relief effort in the wake of the eruption.

New Zealand and Australian defense forces on Monday dispatched surveillance aircraft on reconnaissance missions to assess damage on Tongatapu and Tonga’s outer islands. Earlier attempts to respond were hindered by the massive ash clouds looming over the region.

The view of Hunga Tonga volcano on Jan. 13. Tonga Geological Services/2022

While domestic communication lines are still online in Tonga, international communication is limited to satellite communication through the Australian and New Zealand High Commissions, said Curtis Tuihalangingie of the High Commission of Tonga in Australia.

Those who were able to contact their families and friends ahead of Saturday’s eruption were unable to explain the magnitude of the event, Tuihalangingie told Radio Australia.

There were no reports of extensive property damage on Tongatapu and no deaths, but an extensive assessment of the outer islands remains to be done.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is still attempting to contact Tonga’s Red Cross teams, and has enough relief supplies to support 1,200 households.

But drinking water remains one of the greatest concerns for Tonga due to saltwater inundation caused by tsunami waves and ash-fall from the eruption, said Katie Greenwood, IFRC Pacific Head of Delegation.

“Local Red Cross teams are well placed to respond quickly to emergencies like this,” Greenwood said in a statement. “We are determined to provide the extra resources and support they may need in the face of such a devastating disaster.”

The eruption and subsequent tsunami led to warnings around the Pacific, as well as coastal evacuations as far away as Japan. A sonic boom was heard in Alaska, according to news reports.

In Hawaii, effects of the tsunami were reported on Lanai and the Big Island. A previously planned Kailua-Kona regatta was cancelled and businesses and boat clubs in Kona later reported that water inundated the coast. In its aftermath, tsunami surges left a mess of boats out of the water and furniture strewn across the area.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano has not just been sitting dormant for the past few years: In 2014-2015 and 2009, magma and steam erupted out of the ocean. In 2015, an island 1.2 mile wide was formed by erupting rocks and ash.

More recently, the volcano erupted twice before Saturday’s devastation, on Dec. 20 and Thursday, forming clouds of ash visible from the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, 40 miles to the south.

The recent volcanic activity mimicked that of five years ago, according to University of Hawaii Earth Sciences professor Ken Rubin. Though it was relatively mild earlier, it did not mean the impending eruption would not be of concern.

“It’s always a possibility,” Rubin said. “It’s always something be on the checklist, to be aware of.”

Rubin’s previous work has focused on submarine volcanoes, including those in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.

Rubin says he believes the biggest fallout for Tonga could be from the over-washing of seawater on the islands and general infrastructural damage, because the islands are generally low-lying.

But any further analysis will have to wait until stronger communication lines are reestablished with Tonga.

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