For Tongans in Alaska, a fretful wait for news after eruption and tsunami

a gray sphere
An eruption of an underwater volcano near Tonga, which triggered a tsunami that was seen throughout the Pacific. In Alaska, people reported hearing the eruption several hours before the tsunami made it to shore. (Image courtesy CIRA at Colorado State University)

A massive volcanic eruption near the Kingdom of Tonga sent people nearby scrambling for higher ground and prompted warnings of tsunamis throughout the Pacific. 

While the physical impact in Alaska has been relatively minor, Alaskans with ties to Polynesian island communities say the emotional impact of waiting for news of friends, family and loved ones is heavy. 

“Many Tongans over here did not sleep well,” Juneau resident Melehoko Pauu Ma’ake said on Saturday.

Melohoko Pauu Ma’ake with her mother and niece on Nuku’alofa in Tonga. Ma’ake, who lives in Juneau, knows her mother is safe, but she is concerned for other friends and family who live in Tonga after a volcanic eruption and tsunami that has largely cut off communication from the island nation to the outside world. (Photo courtesy Melohoko Pauu Ma’ake)

There has been very little contact with Tonga since Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted. It has been difficult to get information about how the island communities are faring. Radio New Zealand reports that communication has been out since Friday evening, and there are reports that power has been cut in the capital.

Ma’ake and her husband have family in Australia and New Zealand and in other communities in the U.S. She said they are hungry for news and have been texting each other every update they find on social media.

“We’re dying for information to see what’s going on because we’re not hearing anything,” Ma’ake said.  “The first thing — we’re waiting all ears to see more of our relatives — how they are doing.”

Early reports from the eruption show lightning and ash was raining from the sky. Ma’ake said that on Friday evening, before communication was cut off, she video-chatted with a friend in Tonga. 

“She was driving from work with the ash and the rocks, raining rocks. And so she put on her phone the whole time for me so I can watch her drive home and see what’s going on,” Ma’ake said. “And it got to the point in her drive, she couldn’t see anymore, so she had to pull off the road.”

An aerial view of the very flat coastal landscape
The approach to Fua’amotu Airport, Tongatapu, Tonga on Oct. 20, 2014. (photo by David Broad/Creative Commons)

The volcano is about 40 miles of north of Tongatapu, the island where the capitol is located. It has been erupting intermittently since December, according to a report from the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program. 

Despite Tonga’s relative isolation, a booming sound after the initial eruption was heard 5,800 miles away in communities throughout Alaska several hours later. 

Some people have shared photos and videos on social media of people fleeing to higher ground and a tsunami flooding the shore line of Tongatapu. 

Ma’ake said she goes home to Tonga every year. And when she heard that Tongatapu was submerged, it scared her because she said there’s not a lot of places to get to higher ground. The island is relatively flat — the highest point is about 92 feet above sea level. 

And Ma’ake’s uncle lives 10 minutes away from Nuku’alofa, the capital on Tongatapu. He’s 84, and she says he lives by himself, is very stubborn and loves his home. 

“You know, he’s not very far away from the oceanfront. Walking it took me just like 20 minutes to walk from his waterfront to his house when I was there last time,” she said. “I hope he left his place. You know, I can see his daughter coming to take him to higher ground and him like ‘no, you know, I’m staying here in my house.”

Pita Taufatofua with Melohoko Pauu Ma’ake’s niece. An undersea volcanic eruption near the Kingdom of Tonga prompted warnings of tsunamis throughout the Pacific, and cut off the Polynesian island community from the outside worlds. Taufatofua has posted on social media that he has been unable to reach his father who lives in Tonga.  (Photo courtesy Melohoko Pauu Ma’ake)

With the lack of clear communication about what’s happening in Tonga, it’s hard to know what kind of aid the islands will need. Ma’ake said so far her friends and neighbors in Juneau have supported her by calling and checking in to make sure she’s OK.

And for Tonga, she said everything is still so fresh — but there will probably need to be some fundraising at some point because the eruption and tsunami will probably have a huge financial impact. 

“They’re not poor in their friendliness and love, Tonga is very rich in that. But economically they are a poor island so I know they’re going to need a lot of help.”

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