18 Jan 2022

'Crucial time for our community': Tongans in NZ pray family and friends are safe

6:28 am on 18 January 2022

New Zealanders with whānau and friends in Tonga are anxiously waiting for communication to be restored after the disastrous eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai.

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Waves triggered by the eruption tore through the western coastline of Tonga's main island, 15 January 2022. Photo: Facebook / Ray Kalonihea Tu'itakau

Power is being restored in the capital Nuku'alofa but communication is still largely cut off, leaving many in a state of limbo and praying that their loved ones are safe.

Saturday's eruption, one of the largest in the past 30 years, triggered a tsunami that tore through the western coastline of Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, causing significant damage.

Reverend Tevita Finau of the Methodist Church of New Zealand said a member of his congregation was on the phone with her family in Tonga on Saturday night when a shockwave from the volcano boomed through the air.

"During the meal, they heard a big explosion in Tonga," he said.

"The kids were screaming, they were crying, they were scared. The daughter told her mum to stop the phone call, they would talk later, but to hurry, take the kids and to run to a higher point, just in case.

"That was the last time they spoke to each other."

Reverend Finau said everyone had been affected by the disaster.

"I've got a brother, who is paralysed and who lives in a low-lying area in the western part of the main island of Tongatapu, from our village of Nukunuku, and he was a bit reluctant to evacuate.

"This was before the explosion. On Saturday, he had a conversation with my sister, who is in Wellington. And that was the last time that we heard from them.

"Even though he was reluctant, we agreed that they had to go."

He said his congregation were worried, but understood communication had been cut off.

Prayers and community spirit were getting them through, but he encouraged anyone waiting to hear from loved ones to seek support.

Panmure-Ōtāhuhu MP Jenny Salesa yesterday met with Tongan community leaders and formed the Aotearoa Tonga Relief Committee.

"It will be very different to the assistance that the government provides," she said.

"Of course, that would go through the official process. This is basically helping families in New Zealand to send their own care packages to their own family members in Tonga."

The New Zealand Defence Force is preparing a C-130 Hercules to fly to Tonga to deliver aid, when it is safe to land on the main island of Tongatapu. An Air Force Orion carried out a reconnaissance flight to help assess the damage on low-lying islands.

A screen grab taken from the NOAA GOES-West satellite on 15 January 2022 shows the volcanic eruption that provoked a tsunami in Tonga.

A screen grab taken from the NOAA GOES-West satellite on 15 January 2022 shows the volcanic eruption that provoked a tsunami in Tonga. Photo: AFP / NOAA

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pledged $500,000 in aid, but stressed that figure was a starting point.

She said accessing clean drinking water remained a critical priority for Tonga, but that the navy was able to deploy very quickly to help.

Jenny Salesa said in the past, aid groups had worked with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to send the supplies people needed.

But successive natural disasters in Tonga and the Covid-19 pandemic had left it in a state of rebuild, even before Saturday's eruption, she said.

Salesa said she had hundreds of family members in Tonga and that the committee would do whatever it could.

"In times of challenge and natural disasters like this, Tongans are people that really good at coming together, uniting to help our own," she said.

"And I believe that we will work together and ensure that we do as much as we can to assist our families."

Letele Tuiafitu, a community and church leader at Māngere's Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, said as they waited to hear how they could help, all they could do is pray.

"This is a very crucial time for all of our community in Tonga," she said.

"I'm speaking from my heart of sadness, because I know most of our relatives and our families and our people are currently facing disaster in Tonga.

"For our community here in New Zealand, I encourage everyone to remember our people in their prayers."

Defence Minister Peeni Henare said planning for the imminent deployment of naval ships to Tonga was under way.

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