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The volcanic eruption makes it difficult to reach people in Tonga


It's still hard for people to find out about the status of their loved ones in Tonga after the recent volcanic eruption nearby. One family in Alaska worries about friends and family thousands of miles away on that island nation. Rashah McChesney reports from KTOO in Alaska.

RASHAH MCCHESNEY, BYLINE: Melehoko Pauu Ma'ake has been dealing with two big problems since the volcanic eruption in Tonga, the first is reaching her uncle. He's 84 and lives by himself near the capitol, directly in the path of the tsunami. And the second problem she laid out in a Zoom call with some family members a few days after the eruption.


MELEHOKO PAUU MA'AKE: The thing about Tonga is finding a very trustworthy source, you know? All of us here, we've been to Tonga many times.

MCCHESNEY: Ma'ake's family is trying to figure out the best place to send aid money.


MA'AKE: And we know that when funds go to Tonga, sometimes it really doesn't go directly to the people.

MCCHESNEY: And she is still grappling with this problem. So she called a group of her extended family to her home in Juneau to talk about what they know...

MA'AKE: Hey.


MA'AKE: Come in. Don't take off your shoes. Come in here.

MCCHESNEY: ...And maybe figure out how they can help. Ma'ake was born in Tonga but moved to the U.S. when she was 4. She and her husband moved to Alaska after a visit. She estimates around 200 Tongan people live in Juneau. Telephone links between Tonga and the rest of the world are slowly being reconnected. But they're unreliable. And the internet is still down.

SIUA SEKONA: There's no connection. It's ringing, but...

MCCHESNEY: That's Ma'ake's brother-in-law, Siua Sekona.

S SEKONA: There's nothing like an answering machine or something that you can leave a message, nothing.

MCCHESNEY: Siua Sekona grew up in Tonga. Right now, his big concern is fresh water because most Tongans are not connected to city water.

S SEKONA: So they rely a lot on the rainwater.

MCCHESNEY: A lot of the fresh water supply is tainted by volcanic ash and salt water from the tsunami. A few aid flights have landed. And at least one ship has docked with supplies. But the family worries about there being enough to go around. At one point, Siua Sekona's daughter, Margaret Sekona, sits down at the dining room table, hunched over her phone. Her father and Ma'ake huddle in.


MCCHESNEY: Someone on the country's main island, Tongatapu, managed to get a connection and livestreamed a drive through the devastation. Margaret turns and looks at her dad.

MARGARET SEKONA: Can you tell where this is?

S SEKONA: I couldn't really tell.

MCCHESNEY: She says she's surprised to see buildings and houses standing, cars driving along the road. There are broken windows, downed trees. Everything is blanketed in this dark film of mud and ash. But...

M SEKONA: It's a little comforting, though, for sure to just be able to see at least something.

MCCHESNEY: Even though what she sees on screen right now is terrible, it's better than what she imagined. Siua Sekona tells everyone to have hope. He has seen what happens after the islands take a hit.

S SEKONA: They were sharing everything that they can share.

MCCHESNEY: This whole experience takes him right back to his own childhood. In 1982, one of the deadliest storms in Tonga's history struck. Cyclone Isaac, killed six people and left 45,000 people homeless. When he sees the video on Margaret's phone, his hands shake.

S SEKONA: It seems that I relive the experience again.

MCCHESNEY: Siua Sekona says he was on one of the outlying islands at the time on a mission for the Mormon church. He woke up at 2 a.m. as a storm surge swept him from his bed.

S SEKONA: You know, we were swimming because the - you know, the wave was so high.

MCCHESNEY: He's thankful that this time around, the eruption and tsunami happened during the day, so at least people were able to see it coming. As for Ma'ake's uncle, she still hasn't talked with him directly. But she finally heard from someone who heard from someone that he's OK - one less person for her to worry about.

For NPR news, I'm Rashah McChesney in Juneau.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEB WILDBLOOD'S "SKETCHES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rashah McChesney
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