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Massive Ash Cloud Turns Tonga Into Moonscape; Anxiety Mounts Among Bay Area Tongans

SAN MATEO (CBS SF/AP) -- Concerns continued to mount Monday within the large Tongan community in the San Francisco Bay Area over the welfare of relatives still living in the Pacific Island nation after it was 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 from the volcano, which covered the island with a dense cloud of ash and battered by tsunami waves. The towering ash cloud since Saturday's eruption had prevented earlier flights.

Meanwhile, communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd., the company single cable that connects 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 lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.

Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.

More than 100,000 residents of Tongan descent live in San Mateo County -- even more than in the island nation itself. Photos of the eruption and a lack of communication have the local community on edge.

"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 coming 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."

West Coast Tsunami Coverage

A British woman who was missing in the wake of the eruption and tsunami has been found dead, her family said, in the first reported fatality on Tonga. The brother of Angela Glover, who ran an animal rescue center, said the 50-year-old died after being swept away by a wave.

Nick Eleini said his sister's body had been found and that her husband survived.

"I understand that this terrible accident came about as they tried to rescue their dogs," Eleini told Sky News.

He said it had been his sister's life dream" to live in the South Pacific and "she loved her life there."

Tsunami waves crashed into Tonga's shoreline, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and shops on Tonga's shoreline. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz.

"We tried to get hold of family and there's no connection," said Makisi Pensini, who emigrated to the Bay Area from Tonga in 1977. He said that after communication with the island was lost, no one has heard anything. He spent the weekend working at the First Tongan Assembly of God church in San Carlo 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 Pastor Vaka 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 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."

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family's home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.

"It's really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it's dangerous," she said. "I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just 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.

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