Barriers preventing local groups from helping Tonga after volcano, tsunami

Posted at 9:53 PM, Jan 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-17 00:12:43-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The threat of the tsunami is gone, but other concerns remain for Tonga — including inhalation of volcanic ash, lack of clean water and a technological disconnect from the outside world.

“I wish New Zealand or Australia will provide some water to be sent as soon as possible,” said Seni Penitani, whose family lives on the small Tongan island of Nomuka.

Local Pacific Islander communities and organizations are desperate to send help to Tonga right now, but there’s a number of barriers that are making efforts complicated.

WATCH: Utah Tongan community waiting for answers after tsunami

PIK2AR — the Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources organization – serves Pacific Islander communities in Utah.

PIK2AR wants to send help to Tonga, but executive director and co-founder Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou said there’s a lot of logistical issues.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou said the banking system in Tonga is Internet-based. With power down on the islands, she said sending money may not be an option right now. There’s also no easy or direct way to ship supplies from the United States.

She said sending volunteers is another complication because Tonga has strict COVID-19 barriers in place.

“Water is the first priority right now and protecting the population from COVID. We don’t want to deal with those two disasters at the same time,” said Penitani.

BYU’S Pacific Islanders Club is already preparing ways to provide relief to Tongans.

“We’ll be able to fundraise and work together in order to create relief packets or send money. Things that we’re able to do in order to help the foundations that we choose,” said club vice president Sami Tuipulotu.

Tuipulotu is half Tongan and served a mission there for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 2018 to 2020.

“The necessities that they have are the things that we take for granted. That’s clean water, toiletry supplies, things for their families, things that we have every day that we don’t necessarily think about, but things that they really need right now,” said Tuipulotu.

She hopes Tonga can get the help it needs and get it fast.

“Small countries, small places, they matter,” she said.

Tuipulotu said if you want to get involved, you can reach out to the club’s Instagram account, @pic_byu, as they start planning the best way to help out.

As for PIK2AR, Feltch-Malohifo’ou said they would normally send someone from Utah to Tonga to help out, but right now they plan to work with the Red Cross and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Church announced it will help distribute 50,000 masks to prevent Tongans from inhaling volcanic dust. It will also “support the provision of water to communities, as needed, as assessments by government authorities continue.”

Elder Ian S. Ardern, Pacific Area President of the Church, released a statement saying, “We are working with government and other officials in the region to identify urgent needs and how we can support efforts to alleviate suffering and help communities get back on their feet after this disaster.”

He added, “It is in times such as these that we are grateful for the generosity of members of the Church who donate to the Church Humanitarian fund for there will be a need of temporal assistance in Tonga.”