Underground Volcano Erupts, Isolates the South Pacific Island Nation of Tonga

By Beth Lederer


Almost a month has passed since the underground volcano erupted in Tonga on Jan. 15. It left the South Pacific archipelago of 176 islands isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world. The massive eruption exploded with such fury that the sonic boom was heard all through the Tongan Islands, Fiji, New Zealand and even as far away as Alaska.

The volcanic eruption caused huge tsunami waves to spread all across the Pacific Ocean, crashing and damaging three of the smaller islands in Tonga, destroying homes and even reaching the shores of the California Coast. 

Reuters reported that in the waves ruptured an underground fiber optic cable, which snapped about an hour after the volcanic eruption. This caused the archipelago to be left isolated and in the dark. 

Families abroad were also left in the dark. They had to wait anxiously, in fear and with much uncertainty with the rest of the world to find out about their loved ones in Tonga. The Bay Area has a huge Tongan community. An estimated ten of thousands of Tongans live abroad and there are an estimated 13,000 Tongans who live in San Mateo County. There was an outpouring of support with many Fundraisers for Tonga held in the Bay Area for Tongan relief.

A humanitarian crisis was declared by the Prime Minister on Jan. 19. There was vast devastation to property, homes, and the water supply was contaminated with ash. 

Dr. David Ga’oupu Matthew Palaita, who is Associate Professor of Critical Pacific islands and Oceania Studies at the City College of San Francisco told The Guardsman “that due to remote learning in the Pandemic, our CCSF students were encouraged to support on-going community relief efforts in S.F. and the wider Bay Area.”

Dr. Palaita spoke heavily about the ancient cultural practice of the ocean.  “You see this practice of cultural connections and unification in times of tragedy and love. The strength of these cultural practices are drawn from an ocean archive of vast knowledge. Those connections through ocean means that as Samoans or Tongans or Tahitians or Chamorro or Belauan, and as Islanders, we are not who we are without the other.” 

Dr. Palaita went on to say “This ancient practice can be complicated due to on-going colonialism’s that centers individualism over collectivity,” adding, “however there are moments you see this reflected in community work or more expansively how Pacific Islands students work together to change their schools and classroom curriculum.”

Max Hollinger/The Guardsman

This same concept of ocean unity can be witnessed in San Francisco and around the Bay Area as Pacific Island Organizations and other communities pull together to support the Tongan relief effort. A fundraiser was held in San Francisco, called The Help For Tonga Fundraiser on Jan. 29. 

The fundraiser was a collaborative effort between seven nonprofits and companies ALL IN SF, All My Uso’s, Atlas, District Six, The City Eats, Samoan Community Development Center, and South Pac).

Christine Mauia from All My Uso’s stated that Raul Lopez from ALL IN SF took the lead in coordinating the Help For Tonga fundraiser, a one day drop-off event that was a collaborative effort between many agencies and held at District Six. 

Those who dropped off supplies were welcome to stay and enjoy the music and food. Mauia said the diversity of San Francisco was shown through the collaboration of different racial groups who all came together in the relief effort to support the devastation in Tonga.

Mauia said the event had around 200 people who stopped by to donate products. 

Help For Tonga requested water, non-perishable food, medical supplies, cleaning supplies, hygiene products for men and women, baby supplies, batteries, and flashlights be donated. All these supplies are being shipped by SF Enterprise, whose owners are of South Pacific Descent,  to the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO).

For this fundraiser, several 20 foot by 40 foot containers were filled. Mauia said, “it was so inspiring  to see all the agencies come together to show support and rally together for one cause to support the Tongan community.” Mauia likes to always end off with the saying “What you make happen for others God will make happen for you.”

Ann Mahina from SF-Tongans Rise Up is also receiving drop-offs to deliver to NEMO. Collections are on-going. To donate water or other supplies, donors can reach out to Pacific Islander Resource Hut. 

SF-Tonga’s Rise Up is also actively involved in helping and collecting supplies for the local Tongan community in San Francisco. Mahina said her organization is “reaching out to Tongan families wherever we can help.”

Any money donated would be sent to MORDI, a trust to redevelop rural areas that have been cut off and help empower isolated communities. Mahina said she is “spreading the love wherever it’s needed, from San Francisco to Tonga, making sure that all donations are received with love.”

A universal theme that has been demonstrated through the Tongan relief effort has been collaboration. A collaborative effort made between many Bay Area groups that have united together for support for Tonga.  Binding all, the threat of climate change that South Pacific Islanders have to live with on a daily basis. 

The Underground volcano eruption and tsunami in Tonga showed the whole world once again the far reaching consequences of climate change on our fragile environments around the world. The collaborative efforts for Tonga relief shows it how united it can be.

The Guardsman