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Utah Tongan community waiting for answers after tsunami

Posted at 9:39 PM, Jan 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-16 00:27:51-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has one of the largest populations of Tongans outside of Tonga itself.

According to a 2011 report from The Salt Lake Tribune, 1/4 of Tongans living in the United States resided in Utah.

On Saturday, they were worried about their island and their loved ones there after a volcano under the ocean erupted just 40 miles from Tonga, causing tsunami waves.

“Every Tongan across the globe was searching for every little bit of information,” said Sam Lutui, a St. George resident. "There's a lot of a lot of people that are feeling it in Utah.”

Lutui has been looking at every single bit of information coming out of the island nation because many family members, including his sister, still live there.

“We knew it was inevitable, that it was coming, but then everything just went dark. No communication whatsoever. There was no internet, no power, no nothing,” he said, adding that it's frustrating not being able to talk to his loved ones and make sure they are OK.

Official word from the island nation is nearly impossible right now, so Lutui and others have depended on social media, news reports from other countries, and images of the explosion from satellites seen around the world.

"Everybody's on edge just to find out any and all information coming from the islands," Lutui said.

Another Utahn who has seen the devastation is prominent local attorney Phil Uipi.

"I grew up [in Tonga] up until I was 20 to 21 years old before moving away, and then I went back,” he said. “I have seen the pictures and ... the information of what's going on back in the island.”

Uipi said he is also looking to other countries such as New Zealand and Australia for the latest information about Tonga.

“It’s just kind of shocking to see that the water is already inland, at least six inches or so," he added.

Uipi also knows how big and strong the population of Tongan people is in the state.

“The concentration of Polynesian and especially Tongan you know is much more here in the in the [Salt Lake] Valley than anywhere any other state,” he said.

That point is backed up by the fact that the National Tongan American Society is headquartered here in Utah.

FOX 13 spoke with the society's executive director Fahina Tavake-Pasi, who was very emotional about her home country.

“Everybody's been trying to reach out to their family to see how they're doing and make sure that everybody's OK, but nobody can get through," she said. "So I think everybody's kind of like in a frenzy, just you know, hoping for the best.”

Tavake-Pasi also shined more light on how religious the island nation is, asking everyone listening to “just pray and keep our country and our family in their prayers.”