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Utah famillies learning of devastation in native Tonga

TONGA — The clean-up is underway in Tonga after a cyclone flattened the Pacific-nation’s Parliament House, homes, and churches.

Tongans living in Utah have been keeping a close eye on Tropical Cyclone Gita. A staff member from the National Tongan American Society, based in South Salt Lake, was there while the storm roared through.

According to the Utah Department of Health, one in four Tongan Americans lives in Utah. Many of them still have family members there. Some were able to get in touch to be sure they were okay.

Lavinia Taumoepeau-Latu is the Director of Civic Engagement for the Society. She went to Tonga several weeks ago to visit her husband and took cover with her husband and son.

“Oh my gosh, that was the scariest thing,” Taumoepeau-Latu said Monday.

Taumoepeau-Latu spoke with KSL through a FaceTime call, showing conditions in the area. Trees were stripped of their branches, and homes along the roads had been damaged. Taumoepeau-Latu said they took cover in a home in a newer development while the storm raged all around them.

“We could feel it going throughout the house. It felt like there was so much pressure and so much outside. Every time you looked out the window, you couldn’t see what kind of devastation there was behind the rain,” she said. “My son, this is his first time in Tonga, and I could feel his little heart beat so fast. He was scared, he was shaking. We kept telling him, ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll be OK.'”

As daylight returned after the early-morning cyclone, the family went to see their home. The house was still standing, though it was damaged. The inside, she said, was drenched.

A media officer for the Tonga Police said they had confirmed three major injuries and 30 minor injuries in Tongatapu from the storm. One man in Fuaamotu died from a heart attack that she said may have been related to the storm.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said all of its missionaries in the region had been accounted for and were safe.

“All missionaries serving in the Samoa Apia Mission and the Tonga Nuku’alofa Mission are safe as Tropical Cyclone Gita moves through the region. Missionaries in Tonga are taking refuge in church buildings away from the coast and have taken necessary preparations to help keep them safe. We pray for all those in the South Pacific who are impacted by this powerful storm,” said spokesman Daniel Woodruff.

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