SAN MATEO (CBS SF/AP) — Concerns continued to mount Monday among the large Tongan community in the San Francisco Bay Area over the well-being of loved ones still living in the Pacific island nation after being rocked by a massive underwater volcanic eruption over the weekend.
New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage caused by the volcano, which blanketed the island in a thick cloud of ash and battered by tsunami waves. The towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented previous flights.
Meanwhile, communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board of Tonga Cable Ltd., the company’s one-stop cable linking Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption.
He said the cable is above and inside the coral reef, which can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would have to pull the cable to assess the damage and then crews would have to repair it. A single break can take a week to fix, he said, while multiple breaks can take up to three weeks. He added that it was not yet clear when it would be safe for a vessel to venture near the underwater volcano to undertake the work.
More than 100,000 people of Tongan descent live in San Mateo County – even more than the island nation itself. The photos of the eruption and the lack of communication are worrying the local community.
“The biggest emotion a lot of us have at this point is helplessness. You can’t do anything from here,” said Michelle Tamasese, who works at Tokemoana Foods in Redwood City.
Tamasese said it was nerve-wracking not knowing how her uncles, aunts and cousins were doing. The only information from Tonga are cellphone videos showing severe flooding.
“It just takes you back to fear, that main emotion of fear,” Tamasese said. “I’m just playing the waiting game, hoping they’ll get back to us soon.”
West Coast Tsunami Coverage
A British woman missing in the wake of the eruption and tsunami has been found dead, her family said, in the first reported death in Tonga. Angela Glover’s brother, who ran an animal rescue centre, said the 50-year-old died after being swept away by a wave.
Nick Eleini said his sister’s body was found and her husband survived.
“I understand that this terrible accident happened while they were trying to save their dogs,” Eleini told Sky News.
He said it was his sister’s dream “to live in the South Pacific and she loved her life there”.
Tsunami waves crashed on Tonga’s coastline and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the damage to boats and shops on Tonga’s coastline. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz.
“We have tried to reach the family and there is no connection,” said Makisi Pensini, who emigrated to the Tonga Bay region in 1977. He said that after communication with the island, no one heard anything. He spent the weekend working at Tonga’s First Assembly of God Church in San Carlo, but his mind and heart were far away.
“The connection is not working in this area,” he said. “We just watch TV, Facebook, everyone was just trying to find an elevated area.”
There is not much relief on the main island and Pastor Vaka Taimani said he was grateful the King of Tonga had been moved to a better protected island. Taimani says he has heard that some of the smaller islands may have been completely submerged and he is deeply concerned for the Tongans living there.
“We still believe. We still believe that something good will come out, you know? he said. “It’s been our prayer all night last night…that God will protect…our little island, that we love so much.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick layer of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.
Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.
In a video posted to Facebook, Nightingale Filihia sheltered at her family’s home from a shower of volcanic ash and tiny chunks of rock that darkened the sky.
“It’s really bad. They told us to stay inside and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for people. Everyone froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home. Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.
© Copyright 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.