The massive undersea volcano eruption near Tonga in the South Pacific affected Anchorage residents who have family and friends on the islands almost 6,000 miles away.
After the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano erupted and brought tsunami waves to the Pacific island nation, no deaths were immediately reported. The tsunami threat has since receded, but communication with the islands remained cut on Sunday and the extent of damage to Tonga unclear.
“It affects everybody that’s not in Tonga right now because of the fact that we can’t get a hold of our families,” Mahina Inoke said after Sunday service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Anchorage. “We all know each other’s family back there, from different villages, from different little islands, you know? We all have relatives over there. For the last few days, all we do is pray and fast and hope for the best.”
Tongans are part of Alaska’s large Polynesian community, closely related to Samoans and other Polynesians in culture and language. In Anchorage, there are more than 600 people with ties to Tonga, according to Fehoko Pulu who also attended the church on Sunday to pray for his family and friends.
Pulu, who has a brother in Tonga, said he and most of the families in the U.S. have been up all night, watching videos from the eruption and trying to get ahold of their loved ones “back home, wondering how they are doing, and if they’re cold or have anything to eat.”
“Everybody’s worried,” he said. “Our heart is with them at home.”
For Pulu, the worry is intensified by the fact that his brother has a disability.
“I have one brother, but he is in a wheelchair,” Pulu said. “Can he survive?”
No injuries or deaths had been reported as of Sunday, according to news accounts. But the information might be hindered by poor communication with the islands, said Lucy Hansen, president of Polynesian Association of Alaska.
“As far as I know, there was no connection to the islands,” Hansen said. “Today is their Monday, and we haven’t had any words if there were any casualties or not.”
Among the Anchorage Tongan community are those who have relatives in Tongatapu, the island closest to the volcano, Hansen said.
“As far as most of the other people in Tongan community, their families live on other islands such as Vavaʻu and Ha’apai,” she added. “Those families are still okay, they have lights and they still have electricity.”
Residents of Vavaʻu island could go to higher ground after the eruption, Hansen explained, but those living on small and mostly flat islands around Ha’apai had no place to escape to.
Hansen said she spoke to her friend, Kato Haunga, who has family back in the village of Nuku’alofa that was covered with water, rain and “ashes falling down like rocks.”
“She is in tears and waiting for news on her family to see if they are OK,” Hansen said.
According to Hansen, some local Tongan families in Alaska heard about help coming from the New Zealand military on Sunday.
“They are waiting and hoping for better news,” Hansen said.
The Anchorage Tongan community also receives updates from New Zealand media about what happened and is considering putting together a donation pool to send help back home, Pulu said.
Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for the power and internet to be restored, said Sela Ofiu who has a sister and brother in Tonga.
“It’s a lot of them back home,” Ofiu said. “And we love them, you know? We miss them. And all we do is just pray for them.”
Inoke, whose Tongan family lives more inland, said that not knowing how their family is doing takes a physical and mental toll on everybody in the community.
“But we’re God-believing people,” Inoke added. “We know that God can do miracles, and we already see the hands of God in our people. And we’re hoping that when they do get back with us, they will get back with us with great news.”