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Bay Area Relatives Get Brief Message From Hope From Tonga

MOUNT DIABLO (KPIX) -- Anxious Bay Area relatives got a brief message of hope, after the tsunami triggered by the massive underground volcano hit the island nation of Tonga and wiped out key communications infrastructure.

On Monday afternoon, Sela Tukia, the Tongan Consul General for San Francisco told KPIX that while direct communication has not been made, several recon flights over the island nation showed damage that was described as "substantial."

Talita Kefu lives in San Mateo now, but the rest of her family is still in Tonga. She was worried like everyone else, but on Sunday, she got a precious gift--one minute to talk to her sister.

"I got one minute and that was just the best. Just the best," said Talita.

Her sister talked someone at the local phone company into giving her a one-minute call on a satellite phone. It was just enough time to say that everyone was ok and to pass on information that may come as a relief to many Tongans in the Bay Area.

"Our home is less than a mile from the waterfront," said Talita, "and she said no water made it to our home, so that says something. And some of the families that live nearby us were messaging us saying, 'Okay, so if your home is safe, does that mean ours is too?' I think so, from what she described. So, I'm really optimistic about it."

There are other islands in Tonga where the news may be different. But any news, especially positive news, is being received gratefully by friends and family who, so far, have been left to imagine the worst.

Late Monday, which is Tuesday in Tonga, there was more good news. Repairs to satellite communications equipment will begin soon, with a fix for the underwater phone cable taking at least two weeks. However, before equipment can be flown in, the airport runway needs to be cleared of ash. So far, Tongans manually swept about 100 meters of the runway on Monday, but still have a long way to go.

The first pictures of the tsunami rolling in were posted to the internet, but a short time later everything went dark as all normal communications systems failed. That's what HAM radio operators like Dick Wade are prepared for. The antenna above his Walnut Creek home is pointed toward Tonga but so far, he hasn't been able to pick up anything recognizable.

"It's a part of the world, it's difficult from this area to reach," said Wade, "but Australia and New Zealand, they should start hearing lots of stuff, and the emergency authorities in that part of the world, they should be able to make some contact there."

Wade is a member of the Mt. Diablo Amateur Radio Club and although the ash clouds from the volcano are weakening radio signals, he expects that networks of amateur radio operators will soon be established to help get word out to worried friends and family around the world.

Once help does arrive, COVID-19 might could slow relief efforts. So far, Tonga has had only one case of the virus. Any emergency personnel coming into the country will have to be carefully screened to prevent spread of the disease, which could add one disaster on top of another.


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