Members of Oahu’s North Shore Tongan Community worked Monday to collect the bare necessities to send home to families in the South Pacific beset by the recent volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

The Hauula Civic Center was the gathering point to collect items donated by community organization Hui O Hauula to be sent off to the tsunami-afflicted islands of Tonga.

Those collecting clothing all had family on the islands and most have not been able to speak to loved ones since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Volcano violently erupted on Saturday.

The eruption rained ash and rock across the country’s many islands, spurring tsunami waves that inundated coastal areas and cut off communication lines with the Pacific nation.

The Tongan community, on Oahu’s North Shore, have started collecting clothing and essentials to send back to their families in Tonga. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Items at the Civic Center, which had everything from kitchenware to children’s clothing, were free to members of the Tongan community to take and send to their families.

Olivia Kanongataa’s extended family lives on the small island Atatā, which she says “sank” with the inundation of tsunami waves. The island, off the coast of Tonga’s most populous island Tongatapu, has about 100 inhabitants.

Though she had yet to receive word from family in Tonga, she had seen several images on social media, including her uncle’s inundated farm.

She collected several suitcases worth of clothing and kitchenware to send to family.

Kanongataa’s 87-year-old mother-in-law, Islaise Tavake, lives on Tongatapu and she is trying to get a crate sent to Tonga as soon as possible. But she says she thinks they will only be able to send packages to Tonga once the communication lines have been reestablished.

“Maybe in the next week of so,” Kanongataa said. “Hopefully, because we just want to hear if they are OK or not.”

Getting Information

Hawaii’s honorary consular agent for Tonga, Annie Kaneshiro, says she has been fielding calls since communication lines failed, from Hawaii and from people on the mainland.

“People are desperate to know how their families are,” Kaneshiro said. “But with such limited information coming out, it has been difficult.”

Tonga has a resident population of 105,000 but has a diaspora of approximately 126,000, largely in the U.S., New Zealand and Australia.

Piecing information together, through news reports, social media and information from the Australian and New Zealand High Commissions had been the only solution so far. The high commissions have satellite communication links, as does the University of South Pacific.

It appeared the western portion of Tongatapu was the most severely affected part of the island, though acid rains were an issue and the food security situation would need to be addressed urgently.

Cleanup crews have reportedly started clearing rubble from coastal roads and buildings.

Emmeline Ika, who lives on Oahu’s North Shore, received an email from her daughter-in-law who works for the defense force and  lives on Tongatapu with her son.

Ika, who hails from the northern island of Vava’u, said she was told that Vava’u was largely fine but the central and small islands in the Haapai region were worse off.

A distress beacon was set off in Haapai, a collection of islands in central Tonga, alerting the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Monday. The islands have an approximate population of 5,500 people.

Part of the issue was that there were warnings on Friday, but nothing happened, Ika says.

“They were alerted the day before so they didn’t think it was serious,” Ika said, but after they heard the “thunder” for the fifth time, they realized it was a serious situation. “So people started to take it seriously; just got into their vehicles and ran inland.”

Ika’s son lives inland, so was relatively unaffected by the tsunami. They took in four coastal families who were forced to evacuate.

In the meantime, Kaneshiro says the international community has been extending its goodwill to Tonga’s ambassador in New York.

Surveying The Fallout

Australia and New Zealand defense force aircraft surveyed the islands on Monday, finding extensive damage to the island of Tongatapu and others. Previous attempts were hampered by heavy ash clouds.

Due to communication issues, it has been difficult to ascertain the number of people killed in the disaster.

A 50-year-old British woman was the first confirmed death. Angela Glover was reportedly trying to save the dogs at her animal shelter when she was swept away. Her body was later found and identified by her husband, BBC reported.

A P-3K2 Orion aircraft flies over an area of Tonga that shows Ash on the rooves of homes and surrounding vegetation.
Images from the Royal New Zealand Airforce shows ash on the roofs of homes and surrounding vegetation in Nomuka in Tonga’s central Haapai. New Zealand Defence Force/2022

But Tonga police had reported three unconfirmed deaths on Tongatapu, acting New Zealand high commissioner Peter Lund told Tangata Pasifika.

Water remains the largest issue, which New Zealand has offered to assist with. But relief remains stymied by the ash-covered runway at Fuaʻamotu International Airport in Tongatapu.

But Lund said emergency flights would arrive “very shortly.”

“Now that the eruption is over, there’s still a lot of information to come and be received. Particularly from Haapai,” said Lund. “Here on Tongatapu, it’s very sad that some fatalities have been reported, but most people have been reported to be safe and sound.”

Response And Relief

In the meantime, two Royal New Zealand Navy ships left for Tonga on Tuesday, one with hydrographic surveying equipment, dive teams and a SH-2G(I) Seasprite Helicopter and another carrying humanitarian and disaster relief supplies.

“Water is among the highest priorities for Tonga at this stage and HMNZS Aotearoa can carry 250,000 litres, and produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant,” Peeni Henare, New Zealand Minister of Defence, said in a statement.

Tonga Geological Services staff observe Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai on Jan. 13. Tonga Geological Services/2022

It would take three days for the ships to arrive.

Tonga has thus far been entirely free of Covid-19, so all support would be delivered in a contactless way, Henare added.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development on Facebook stated it was would focus its humanitarian response on emergency shelter, safe drinking water, hygiene kits and other relief supplies.

Raising Funds For Afflicted Families

‘Atalina Pasi credits the North Shore relief effort to Hui O Hauula’s kupuna, who came up with the idea. The group raises funds for the organization through a weekly thrift shop and decided the Tongan community should receive as many donations as needed.

Dotty Kelly-Paddock, Hui O Hauula’s executive director, said the community has been strengthened in its responses to disasters, such as the area’s flooding in 2018.

“We see this as serious, if not more serious than what happened back then,” said Kelly-Paddock.

Pasi, a public health student,  helped coordinate event in Hauula and is part of a newly formed Hawaii disaster response group.

About a dozen people from the Koolauloa Tongan community showed up Monday but Pasi said the help would have an exponential benefit to their families in Tonga.

“Those people have big families,” said Pasi. “One has eight brothers and sisters. And she said she was gathering for the neighbors too.”

While there might not have been many people at the donation event in Hauula, their families were large and many would benefit, according to one organizer. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

The group plans to put on a relief concert in the coming week or so, she says, with the hope of featuring local Tongan musicians.

Sione Funaki, a University of Hawaii Ph.D. candidate, said the Australian High Commission is running welfare checks for the Tongan diaspora.

People wanting to check on their loved ones can email names and numbers to the high commission, at alisi.olosoni@dfat.gov.au, which will call to confirm the safety of people in Tonga where domestic telecommunications are  functioning.

Funaki is yet to speak to his parents, who he last spoke to on Saturday morning.

“They were on their way inland, to their plantation area. We had kind of told them, ‘let’s stop talking’ because we wanted them to save their battery,” Funaki said. “We just told them we loved them.”

Support nonprofit, independent journalism.

During this election season, we hope that our coverage provides you with the information to make informed decisions on issues that you care deeply about.

Whether it’s affordable housing, education or the environment, these issues depend on your vote, and our ability to report on them depends on your support.

Every contribution, however big or small, allows us to continue keeping readers informed through election day and beyond. So, if you found value in our coverage, please take the next step by making a contribution to Civil Beat today.

About the Author