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Bay Area Tongan Community Fearful Following Volcanic Tsunami

SAN CARLOS (KPIX) -- There are more Tongans living in San Mateo County than in the island nation itself and Saturday's volcanic eruption and resulting tsunami have everyone here fearing for the safety of their homeland.

In the 1970s a mass migration of people from Tonga settled in the San Mateo area. So, on Friday, when a volcano erupted near the island nation, turning the sky black, reports from family and friends were terrifying, according to Pastor Vaka Taimani of the First Tongan Assembly of God church in San Carlos.

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"They said they never saw anything like that," Rev. Taimini said. "It was like black rain coming down from the sky and they found out later it was little rocks. You could grab them from the top of your car and hold it, you know ... little rocks!"

Early Saturday morning, the eruption caused the sea to rise up, sending tsunami waves moving up and over the low-lying island. Images posted to Facebook and Twitter showed people being driven from their homes but, after a few hours, everything went blank.

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"We tried to get hold of family and there's no connection," said Makisi Pensini, who emigrated from Tonga in 1977. He said that, after communication with the island was lost, no one has heard anything. He spent Saturday working at the church but his mind and heart were far away.

"Connection is not working in that area," he said. "We're just watching the TV, the Facebook, that everybody was just trying to find a high area."

There isn't a lot of high ground on the main island and Rev. Taimani said he's thankful Tonga's king was relocated to an island with more protection. Taimani says he heard that some of the smaller islands may have been completely submerged and he is deeply worried about the rest of the 100,000 Tongans living there.

"We still believe. We still believe that something good's going to come out, you know?" he said. "That's our prayer all night last night ... that God's going to protect ... our little island, which we love so much."

Rev. Taimani said that, between the coronavirus and the volcanic eruptions of the past week, Tonga has been on lockdown for months, with the first inbound flight expected on Thursday. Now he believes, under the best circumstance, it could be another month before family or friends can return to the island.

"They're going to have more than what we expect ... more problems," he said. "So, it's a very tough situation, you know?"

Since communication from Tonga is cut off due damaged underwater wiring. A lot of Tongan-Americans are just waiting for updates from families.

"The biggest emotion that 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 agonizing not knowing how her uncles, aunts, and cousins are doing. The only information out of Tonga are cell phone videos showing severe flooding.

"Just takes you back to fear, that main emotion of fear," said Tamasese. "Just playing the waiting game, hoping they'll connect with us soon."

Because they can't reach anyone, they don't know how to help. They don't know what the people on the island need.
Once they can establish communication, they say then the Bay Area Tongan community can organize and come up with specific plans to help.

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