Utahns can’t reach family members in Tonga after volcanic eruption, tsunamis

Jan 15, 2022, 10:40 PM | Updated: Jan 16, 2022, 10:59 pm

WEST JORDAN, Utah — A volcanic eruption almost 6,000 miles away is being felt by thousands of Utahns who have close personal ties to the communities hit hardest by volcanic ash and tsunamis.

Senituli Penitani explained he began hearing of trouble in his home country of Tonga Friday night. Tonga is just under a day ahead in time, so it was Saturday their time when his friends and family began posting photos, videos and status updates about hearing explosions and experiencing surges along the coastline.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano unleashed ash and chaos into the ocean and sky, affecting the islands closest to it, including the main island of Tongatapu, where the Polynesian country’s capital city of Nuku’alofa is located.

Volcano erupts in Pacific, West Coast under tsunami advisory

One Facebook Live video that Seni played on his phone shows the water receding away from the beach. Seni’s friend narrates in Tongan what he’s seeing. Large pops are heard in the background that sound like fireworks.

“He’s saying it’s like low tide, the seas,” Seni translated from the video.

A few moments later, a small tsunami rushes toward the man and bursts past the beach, overtaking a nearby road and sweeping up large objects.

It’s the last video Seni said he’s seen posted from his home island of Nomuka, where his three sisters live, along with some of his nieces and nephews.

Nomuka, which is only a few square miles in size, sits northeast of the volcanic eruption, and Seni said it’s even closer to the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano than Tongatapu.

Seni has not been able to reach his family, but he was able to message with a friend Friday night, who lives on the main island.

“He said… the scariest noise you can ever imagine,” Seni said while reading his friend’s message. “They saw the eruption, and now it’s like rain with black stones.”

His friend continued that the sky went dark. Pictures friends sent to Seni’s wife, whose sister lives on Tongatapu, show black ash coating the ground and everything in sight.

On Saturday — which was Sunday in Tonga — Seni heard nothing.

He said family members in Australia and New Zealand couldn’t reach anyone, either.

Seni described how he knows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai island well because the only way to reach Nomuka is via a five-hour ferry from Tongatapu.

“It’s almost in between my island and the main island,” he said of the volcanic island. “And when we take the boat, we go to the main island — it’s one of the landmarks.”

Those who know Seni have been reaching out for updates.

“So many people are asking what’s going on. Some of my friends — ‘Are your family doing okay?'” he said.

Seni is hopeful he’ll have an answer soon, and that it’ll be good news.

He’s staying optimistic.

“I hope, yeah,” he sad. “Hopefully there will be some form of communication as soon as possible.”

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Utahns can’t reach family members in Tonga after volcanic eruption, tsunamis