Tonga's Olympic Flagbearer Raising Funds to Help Islands After Volcano Eruption, Tsunami

The tsunami wiped off several small settlements in outlying islands off the face of the map

AP Photo/Getty Images

Pita Taufatofua, known as the "Shirtless Tongan" carrying Tonga's flag at the Olympics, has established a GoFundMe page to help rebuild areas devastated by a tsunami following a volcanic eruption.

Taufatofua said that though the funds will be used to work on long-term projects to rebuild, they're also using funds to address immediate needs such as food and fuel.

As of Thursday evening, the "Tonga Tsunami relief by Pita Taufatofua" verified GoFundMe page has raised over $580,000 Australian dollars (over $400,000 U.S. dollars).

At least three people have been confirmed killed after the volcanic eruption 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, and the tsunami that followed. Several small settlements in outlying islands were wiped off the face of the map, according to the Red Cross and official reports, necessitating the evacuation of several hundred residents.

"In preparation and through the recovery efforts we are seeking your donations to help our island Kingdom," Taufatofua wrote on the page, adding that though he is training in Australia, he was mobilizing "all the assistance I can to send to our beloved Tonga."

As the massive undersea Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on Saturday, Tongans from around the world gazed on as their relatives live streamed images of billowing clouds of ash, gas and steam emerging from beneath the depths.

Then darkness.

The eruption severed Tonga's single fiber-optic cable, rendering the entire Pacific archipelago offline and unable to communicate with the rest of the world — and leaving their loved ones terrified about what might have happened.

“It was absolutely crazy,” said Koniseti Liutai, a Tongan who lives in Australia.

“We were talking with family and relatives, because they were excitedly showing us the volcano's activities, then we heard the explosion and the big bang and everything went dark,” he said. “Then the next information we got was the tsunami warning and then the tsunami hitting; we were all absolutely fearing the worst.”

It wasn't only family and friends who could not get through. Huge ash clouds made backup communication by satellite phone next to impossible, and world leaders were not even able to get in touch with their Tongan counterparts to see what help they needed.

As the ash cleared, satellite communication improved and Tonga's telecoms operator, Digicel, said it had been able to restore international call services to some areas late Wednesday.

With the resumption of some communications, more photos have begun to emerge of the destruction, showing the once-verdant islands turned a charcoal black by a thick coating of volcanic dust.

Coastlines are strewn with debris, while people work to clean streets and walkways.

The 2-centimeter (0.78 inch) layer of ash that rendered the runway at Fua’amotu International Airport unusable has now been cleared, and the first flights carrying fresh water and other aid arrived Thursday.

A repair ship is being sent from Papua New Guinea to work on the undersea cable, but it will take some time to get to Tonga and the company in charge estimates it could take longer than a month to repair the line.

Given that the cable runs right through the volcanic zone, any new volcanic activity could completely scupper even that timeline.

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