Olympics icon loses contact with dad in Tonga following tsunami disaster

Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofauthe, the Tongan flag bearer who captured international attention at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, has revealed he has not heard from his father and his family since the Tongan tsunami on Saturday evening.

“Still no news from my dad or my family in Haapai (Tonga),” he said on Instagram.

Watch the video above to see the scenes as the tsunami hit the shore in Tonga

“Initial reports (show) a disaster across the islands. Once communication is restored and we can see the needs, funds will be mobilized, starting with disaster infrastructure, hospitals and schools. This is an ongoing process.”

Taufatofuathe, who now resides in Australia, explained how his father, the recently appointed governor of Haapai, Dr Pita Taufatofua, was preparing to return home from a meeting when the volcanic explosion disrupted travel.

“After arriving at the airport, his flight was canceled (sic) due to the volcanic eruption,” the Olympian wrote.

“Last we heard he was securing our house in Veitongo, right by the water.”

Pita Taufatofua of Tonga walks during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Credit: David J. Phillip/PA

Meanwhile, the tsunami threat around the Pacific from a huge underwater volcanic eruption has receded, while the extent of damage in Tonga remains unclear.

Satellite images showed the spectacular eruption that took place on Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue waters of the Pacific. A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska.

In nearby Tonga, the eruption sent tsunami waves crashing onto the shore, forcing people to rush to higher ground.

The eruption knocked out the internet in Tonga, leaving friends and family from around the world still anxiously trying to get in touch to determine if there were any injuries and the extent of the damage.

Even government websites and other official sources remained without updates.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke continued to plague Tonga’s air and water, and authorities were asking people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was highly unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was at both “humiliating and frightening”.

Tsunami waves damaged boats as far away as New Zealand, but do not appear to have caused significant damage. Snider said he expects the tsunami situation in the United States and elsewhere to continue to improve.

Tsunami advisories have already been issued for Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hawaii, Alaska and the US Pacific coast.

In this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, and released by the agency, shows an underwater volcanic eruption in the peaceful nation of Tonga.
In this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, and released by the agency, shows an underwater volcanic eruption in the peaceful nation of Tonga. Credit: PA
A provided image obtained on Saturday January 15, 2022 shows a satellite image of a volcanic eruption in Tonga.
A provided image obtained on Saturday January 15, 2022 shows a satellite image of a volcanic eruption in Tonga. Credit: TONGA WEATHER SERVICES/PR IMAGE

The US Geological Survey estimated that the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake.

The Tonga Meteorological Services said a tsunami warning had been declared for the entire archipelago, and data from the Pacific Tsunami Center said waves of 80 centimeters had been detected.

Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji, which has presumably been damaged. All internet connection with Tonga was lost around 6:40 p.m. local time.

Based in Fiji Island Affairs The news site reported that soldiers and police moved King Tupou VI of Tonga from his palace near the shore.

In Tonga, home to around 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing up in coastal areas and swirling around houses, a church and other buildings.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the images of the eruption were “extremely concerning” and that agencies were still trying to establish full communications with the country.

In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported waves measuring 50cm at Nawiliwili, Kauai and 80cm at Hanalei.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions.

Terrestrial imaging firm Planet Labs PBC had observed the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December.

In this satellite photo taken by Planet Labs PBC, an island created by the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai submarine volcano is seen smoking on January 7, 2022.
In this satellite photo taken by Planet Labs PBC, an island created by the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano is seen smoking on January 7, 2022. Credit: Planet Labs PBC/PA

Satellite images show how the volcano has shaped the region, creating a growing island off the coast of Tonga.

Following Saturday’s eruption, residents of Hawaii, Alaska and along the U.S. Pacific Coast have been urged to move away from the coast to higher ground.

The first waves to hit the continental United States were as high as 59cm in Alaska.

A wave of about 79 cm was observed in Monterey, California, according to the US National Tsunami Warning Center

A stock photo of the wild seas
Marine warnings have been issued for the east coast of Australia after a tsunami near Tonga. Credit: AAP

Residents of American Samoa were alerted to a tsunami warning, but as night fell no damage was reported and the Hawaii-based Tsunami Center canceled the alert.

Authorities in Fiji and neighboring Samoa have also issued warnings, telling people to avoid the shore due to strong currents and dangerous waves.

Australian authorities issued a tsunami warning for parts of the east coast and Lord Howe, Norfolk and Macquarie Islands, but these were later canceled on Sunday evening.

In New Zealand, authorities have warned of possible storm surges.

Hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens were asked to leave their homes on Sunday as waves of more than a meter battered coastal areas.

New Zealand’s private forecaster Weather Watch tweeted that people as far away as Southland, the country’s southernmost region, reported hearing sonic booms from the eruption.

Others reported that numerous boats were damaged by a tsunami that hit a marina in Whangarei.

Satellite images showed a 5 km wide plume rising about 20 km after the eruption began early Friday.

– With PAA

Naomi C. Amerson