Tongan Olympic flagbearer finds out father unharmed after tsunami

Pita Taufatofua is raising funds for the island nation hit by devastating underwater volcanic eruption and tsunami.

shirtless Tongan Olympian athlete
Tonga's Pita Taufatofua attending the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games [File: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP]

Tongan Olympic flagbearer Pita Taufatofua has found out that his father is unharmed after being incommunicado for days following a huge underwater volcanic eruption and tsunami.

The Pacific island nation of Tonga suffered widespread destruction after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a deafening explosion on January 15, triggering waves that wrecked villages and resorts and knocking out communications for the 105,000 people across its 36 inhabited islands. At least three people have been killed.

“I found out just an hour ago that my father is OK,” Taufatofua told Al Jazeera from Brisbane, Australia on Friday afternoon. “It’s been a very anxious time.”

Earlier in the week, Taufatofua said his father – the governor of Ha’Apai – had travelled to Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, a few days before Saturday’s eruption.

Infographic: Map showing Tonga's volcano eruption

“He was on quite an adventure. When the tsunami hit, he got on a navy vessel and at the age of 74 took part in the first aid operation to Ha’Apai,” said Taufatofua, who first captured global attention at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, where he appeared topless while waving his country’s flag.

“When we didn’t hear from him or of him, we were quite worried, but we kind of knew that if he is OK; somehow he would be out there in the middle of it all,” added the 38-year-old, who competed in taekwondo in Rio and Tokyo 2020 and also represented his nation at the 2018 Winter Games in the 15km skiing freestyle race.

Fundraising campaign

The Tonga government has said the country is facing an “unprecedented disaster” and requested emergency assistance.

Attempts to respond have been hampered by communication problems after the eruption severed the islands’ undersea cable, and by thick volcanic ash covering the runway at the country’s main airport.

But Thursday saw the landing of the first flights from Australia and New Zealand bringing much-needed supplies of water and power generators, as well as shelter and communication equipment. More ships and jets carrying aid relief are expected to arrive in the coming days.

Taufatofua has launched a GoFundMe campaign which has so far raised more than 600,000 Australian dollars ($430,000).

“I had the page up within an hour of seeing the footage of the tsunami actually hitting, just before the communication was cut,” he told Al Jazeera.

“As soon as I saw it, I knew there would be a lot of damage. Initially, it was for the schools and hospitals, but now seeing what the need is in other areas we are looking at how we can best provide initial aid as well as rebuilding aid over the next coming months and years.”

Tongan athletes during Tokyo Olympics
Taufatofua walks during the opening ceremony at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo [File: Petr David Josek/AP Photo]

Once communications reopen, a volunteer team on the ground will conduct a needs assessment to determine where the funds are most urgently required.

“We reached out to people in Ha’Apai which were most affected. We initially offered to cover any cost of bread or fuel but I just heard that they are short on flour, they are short on water. There is this bakery that has only 60 litres worth of fuel left. There is a lot of need and we are just looking at the logistics of how to fill that need,” Taufatofua said.

“I think the rebuilding is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. The sprint moment of it is getting water across and removing this ash which is covering more than 170 islands so that there is no ongoing respiratory issues as well.

“But it is going to be a long process and we are trying to position ourselves to make sure that we are ready to provide that aid for the median- to long-term as well.”

People clear ash off a damaged area in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
People clear ash off a damaged area in Nuku’alofa, Tonga [Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting via AP]
Source: Al Jazeera