Tongans in Anchorage are starting to hear from their relatives in the Pacific

Sela Ofiu was trying to reach her sister in Tonga for days, but with no luck. After a massive volcanic eruption, communication with the islands remains inconsistent, but with the help from her relatives in Australia and New Zealand, Ofiu finally spoke with her family on Saturday night.

“We were all talking and laughing, but me — I’m very emotional: I talk and cry ... I said to my sister, ‘I’m just glad that you guys made it.’ But the big thing about it — There is not a lot of life lost. That’s why I was so grateful.”

An undersea volcano, Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, brought havoc to the islands of Tonga, but there have been only a few injuries or deaths reported. For days, communication with the islands remained cut off, worrying Tongans across the world and in Alaska.

“It had an impact on everybody, even on us here. We felt what they feel.” Ofiu said.

She explained that lines of communication were restored but quickly became overwhelmed. Fortunately for Ofiu, her relatives in countries closer to Tonga were able to initiate a group call with family members in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga. Since then, most people have been able to contact their families, she added.

[Alaskans with roots in South Pacific wait to hear from relatives after massive volcano eruption]

Alisi Taufa was also able to make sure her daughter was safe two days ago.

“I tried to call how many times, but for me the lines were busy,” she said. “I finally talked to her on Facebook, on Messenger.”

While some Tongan families will have to relocate from their house or island, Ofiu’s family is lucky that their house is intact, she said.

“And we are close to the shore,” she added, waiving to the other side of the street from her window to show the proximity of the ocean to her family’s house in Tonga. “We are so lucky.”

Ofiu’s Tongan family members are still in shock and “in the process of trying to get themselves together,” she added.

“It’s going to take them a long time to come to clear up their mind, and then, it’s gonna be a lot of work to do.”

She said that processing might be especially difficult for little children.

“I hope and pray that they get to do something to teach the school kids what’s happening,” she said, “just explain to them in the right way, make them think, ‘It’s like that: we don’t plan it, but it’s happening.’”

Not everyone in the Anchorage Tongan community has had a chance to talk to their family members yet.

Fehoko Pulu still can’t reach his brother who has a disability. He explained that Tonga has over 160 islands, and little islands are still restoring their communication lines.

“We’re still hoping,” Pulu said. “Hopefully, everything is going to be okay at home.”

In the meantime, Pulu and other members of the Tongan community in Anchorage are preparing to organize a food drive in Anchorage to send help back home. The idea is to send communities in Tonga water, dry food — such as rice, sugar, flour and canned produce — as well as toilet paper, sanitizing wipes and tents.

“Some of the people, they are leaving the houses that were (wiped out) and they are looking for somewhere they can stay.”

Pulu said his community is meeting with Anchorage Mayor Bronson’s administration this Wednesday to discuss the details of the donation.

Anchorage residents can drop off their donations — such as clothing, canned or boxed food, tents, sleeping bags, first-aid kits, toiletry items, blankets or water filters — at Manai Fou Assembly of God Church located at 2600 E 16th Ave. You can also contribute online at adding a note “TONGA” to the monetary donation. For more information, contact Lucy Hansen at (907) 250-4142 or Fehoko Pulu at (907) 310-9990.

The story has been updated to include the directions for making a donation.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.