Disaster and diaspora: Tongan students share stories of resilience after devastating tsunami

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There is a local legend in Tonga that refers to a devastating “kula skin”, or red wave, that once swept across the island. The natives of Tonga would have been content to leave the kula skin to myth – an ancient cautionary tale passed down from generation to generation.

But when Esiteli Hafoka, a Tongan American nun, is studying for a Ph.D. student, heard what sounded like a “huge bomb going off” via her uncle’s Facebook live stream from Tonga on January 15, the caption seemed all too real. The rumble of Tonga’s volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami echoed through his feed until, a few hours later, the messages stopped coming. Hafoka would not hear a word from Tonga for five days.

Everyone was nervous, Hafoka said. “I was most worried about my family in Ha’apai because it’s so close to the eruption.”

The underwater volcano erupted 40 miles north of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, triggering a tsunami that destroyed all homes on one of Tonga’s 36 inhabited islands and killed three Tongans. Tsunami warnings have spread to the Bay Area.

Tonga is no stranger to natural disasters – since 2015 the country has withstood three category five cyclones. But the eruption in Tonga was a once-in-a-millennium event, Shane Cronin, professor of volcanology at the University of Auckland, told CNN.

“It takes about 900 to 1,000 years for the Hunga volcano to fill with magma, which cools and begins to crystallize, producing large amounts of gas pressure inside the magma,” Cronin said. “As the gases start to rise in pressure, the magma becomes unstable. Think of it like putting too many bubbles in a bottle of champagne – eventually the bottle will break.

For most Stanford students, satellite images of the plume made just another sensational headline. But for Stanford’s Tongan diaspora, the eruption meant juggling school and the silence of loved ones while attending a university largely untroubled by the problem.

Kivalu Ramanlal ’22, from Tonga, observed that the issue was virtually absent from conversations on campus, except for emails about Stanford’s Pacific Island community relief efforts. Social media posts about the disaster have focused on the geological wonder of the eruption, rather than the safety of its survivors, including Ramanlal’s uncle, cousins ​​and relatives in Haʻapai.

“I don’t know how they are,” Ramanlal said. “But I think I would have heard something if they weren’t well.”

Even nationally, it seemed to Ramanlal that stories about the eruption barely lasted one news cycle. Adding insult to injury, “a lot of social media posts were from people saying they didn’t even know Tonga existed until a few minutes ago,” Ramanlal said.

“I think it’s just because in America, at least, nobody really knows Tonga,” Ramanlal said.

Hafoka, on the other hand, was impressed with the increased awareness, noting that distant colleagues expressed their support, or that strangers stopped her husband at Disney World to comment on his Tonga shirt.

“Due to sensational media reports, there is now interest in helping Tonga,” Hafoka said. “But I think there should be a bit more media attention towards the relief efforts.”

On February 5, Hui O Na Moku – Stanford’s Pacific Islands Student Organization – organized a supply drive to support the victims of the recent volcanic eruptions in Tonga. Their table at White Plaza collected water and first aid donations for the thousands of people who no longer had access to clean water and basic medical supplies. Their campaign was part of a grassroots effort led by Bay Area restaurant Tokemoana Foods in Redwood City to ship donations directly to Tonga.

Photo: Keona Blanks/The Stanford Daily

Others are mobilizing to ship medical supplies to the Pacific island nation, including two tons of supplies donated by Kaiser Permanente to the ‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices warehouse in Mountain View.

Despite relief efforts in the area, stress levels remain high for the Tongan community on campus as ashfall spoils food and water sources in the country and weak satellite signals limit contact.

“A lot of times it’s just luck whether your call goes through or not,” Ramanlal said on February 16. “So I haven’t actually spoken personally with anyone in Tonga.” Hafoka worries about her uncle, who depends on crops that could be affected by ashfall.

With the price of bottled water rising in Tonga, Tongan communities across the country are increasingly concerned about whether relief efforts will be sufficient.

“The situation makes me feel so privileged to have access to clean water,” said Sela Fifita, a Tongan living in Hawai’i whose mother could hear the Fiji blast. “In Tonga, there is always rain and therefore always water. I never thought this would happen to all of us.


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