Pita Taufatofua, the man who gained fame as the shirtless Tongan flag bearer at the 2016, 2018 and 2020 Olympics, has launched a fundraiser to help the people of his native country following Saturday's massive volcano eruption and tsunami. Much of the country has been covered in ash, affecting the ability to get aid to the island nation, and communications have been paralyzed.
"The whole island of Tongatapu is covered in ash," Taufatofua said in an Instagram video Sunday, relaying information he said is coming from someone with one of the two satellite phones on the island. "There's a layer of ash throughout all of Tongatapu."
Maxar Technologies released aerial photographs of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha-apai volcano and Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa before and after its main eruption, which could be seen from space. One set of images showed homes with clean roofs before the eruption now covered in ash.
That, Taufatofua said, would affect Tongans' ability to get fresh drinking water.
"In Tonga, our drinking water is rain water. So basically water lands on the roof and goes down into a rainwater tank. And if your roof is covered in ash, you can't drink that water because its toxic," he said.
Thick ash on an airport runway was delaying aid deliveries. New Zealand's military is sending drinking water and other supplies, but said the ash on the runway will delay the flight at least a day.
The U.N. World Food Program is exploring how to bring in relief supplies and more staff and has received a request to restore communication lines in Tonga, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Taufatofua said the western side of Tongatapu has a lot of damage and there is some damage in Nuku'alofa on the north side of the island. New Zealand and Australia sent military surveillance flights to assess the damage on Monday.
Taufatofua launched a GoFundMe that has raised more than $330,000 as of Monday night. He said the money will be distributed once communication is back up and a better assessment of the damage can be determined.
"I'm just thankful for any help that people have been giving us," Taufatofua said.
Communications with the island nation is limited because the single underwater fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world was likely severed in the eruption. The company that owns the cable said repairs could take weeks.
Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd., said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.
A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.
New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner for Tonga, Peter Lund, said there were unconfirmed reports of up to three fatalities on Tonga so far. One death has been confirmed by family: British woman Angela Glover, 50, who was swept away by a wave.
Two people drowned in Peru, which also reported an oil spill after waves moved a ship that was transferring oil at a refinery.