Students and professors affected by recent Tonga volcano eruption

People from the Ma’ufanga Seventh-day Adventist Church and the surrounding community attend an evangelistic meeting. 2002. (Photo courtesy of: Douglas Na'a)
People from the Ma’ufanga Seventh-day Adventist Church and the surrounding community attend an evangelistic meeting. 2002. (Photo courtesy of: Douglas Na'a)

Written by: Lucas Bueno and Sarah Klingbeil

On January 14, an underwater volcano erupted in Tonga, and the eruption, along with a tsunami that it triggered, caused much devastation to Tonga and the Tongans.  

Volcano eruptions, including underwater ones, are rare events, according to Steven Kuhlman, a professor in Southern’s Physics and Engineering Department.

Underwater volcanic eruptions are especially rare, according to Kuhlman. He said searching the internet, a person would find about 50 to 70 volcanic eruptions a year, the last underwater eruption occurring in 2010. That compares to 1,500 volcanoes throughout the world that scientists consider active, Kuhlman said.

On Southern’s campus, there are several professors and students who have connections to Tonga. One student is senior nursing major Soko Paongo, whose parents are Tongan.

 “… I was devastated right when I heard the news because you never know what’s going to happen,” Paongo said. “And, at the same time, it was very hard to reach out to family and hear from them just because all the power is out; and, at times like that, you just want to know if your family is safe.

“You would think that after such catastrophic events that took place and a tsunami going over the whole entire island that the islands would sink,” Paonga continued. “But, as of right now, it’s a miracle that the islands are still standing. Tonga has this saying where, ‘God is holding the islands together in his hands.’”  

Still, Paonga asks that people keep the islands of Tonga in their prayers.  

Junior public relations major Lesieli Savelio said she was shocked when she first heard about the volcano.

Savelio, whose father is from Tonga, has some extended family that still live on the island.

“It was really hard because a lot of the connection was wiped out,” Savelio said. “We didn’t hear from them [her family] for a little over a week.”

According to Savelio, one of the biggest problems in the aftermath of the tsunami is drinking water for people. The tsunami contaminated the water they use. Some Tongans in New Zealand and Australia have been trying to buy drinking water to send to their family members in Tonga.

Sunia Fukofuka, who is a professor in the School of Business and Management, shared his reaction to the Tonga volcano in an interview with the Accent.  

“How do I feel? It’s just pain, hurt, yearning to do something, to help them, to help my people,” he said. “It’s not easy to watch your homeland being hit by a tsunami and being hit by a volcano blast. Especially when the communications are down, we cannot know what is happening at home.”  

Fukofuka said he has lived in Tonga and is very familiar with the island.  He described how the Tongans are helping each other in this crisis.  

“Culturally speaking, we have four cultural values that we call the ‘golden cord’ that you weave together,” Fukofuka said. “And, when that [cord] is weaved tightly, that is the foundation of what it means to be a Tongan. And one of those golden cords is the ability to self-sacrifice in order to help others.”

Douglas Na’a, who is the Soul-winning and Leadership Training (SALT) program director at the School of Religion at Southern, also shared his connection to Tonga and his reaction to the news in an interview with the Accent.  

Ma’ufanga SDA Church members gather around an obelisk memorializing the first Christian missionaries to arrive in Tonga. Despite the volcano eruption damaging the houses and trees surrounding it, the obelisk is still standing today, according to Douglas Na’a, Soul-winning and Leadership Training (SALT) director. 2002. (Photo courtesy of: Douglas Na’a)

“I have family and friends there,” Na’a said. “I went to school there; I grew up there for a little bit. So, watching the images that I see on mainstream media just brings back a lot of memories, emotions, because I recognize some of the beaches, some of the roads, some of the places. … So, it really hits hard when you see those images.” 

 Na’a said he and his wife still have family in Tonga, and his wife’s family was affected more due to closer proximity to the volcano. 

 “As a matter of fact, out of three confirmed casualties, one of them comes from my wife’s island, which makes it a very close relative of hers,”  Na’a said.  

Na’a also has connections with the Popua church in Tonga, which he helped plant and where he has preached. The church is next to the seaside and suffered damage and devastation, according to Na’a. Due to communication issues, Na’a has not yet heard anything from the Popua church.  

In addition to receiving foreign aid, Na’a said, the Tongan community is helping each other. 

“What we don’t see on the mainstream media is locals helping locals,” Na’a said. “So, it’s not just Tonga really depending on foreign aid, which we’re thankful for, but Tongans help each other. The culture is very strong, you know. We’re very resilient. We help each other out. … That’s in the DNA of Tongan culture … to help each other out.”

Na’a said people’s support and concern for Tonga is meaningful to him.  

“Pray for Tonga. … Keep them in your prayers,” Na’a said. “If you see a Tongan on campus, just walk up to them and ask them how their family is doing. I know that that would mean a lot to them. 

“It’s amazing in the past weeks how many text messages that I’ve been receiving and inbox messages from my Facebook and emails from people I haven’t heard from in years, but they know I’m Tongan,” he added. “And people I meet at church, they just come up and say, ‘Is everything okay?’ It’s encouraging; it really is encouraging that people are concerned.”

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