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Tongan community meets with Portland leaders to send aid after eruption, tsunami

“My mom’s siblings and my dad’s siblings — some of them are still back on the island”

FILE – This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano in Tonga on Dec. 24, 2021. Three of Tonga’s smaller islands suffered serious damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, as a wider picture begins to emerge of the damage caused by the eruption of an undersea volcano near the Pacific archipelago nation. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Portland Tongan community is organizing aid with city officials after a massive eruption near the island nation of Tonga has left the country in limbo.

Lute Richards, 36, is the Pacific Islander youth and family advocate for the Portland-based Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization. Richards said she and others from IRCO met with city leaders from Portland and Beaverton to discuss a healing space for the local Tongan community along with sending resources to the country.

Richards has yet to hear from some family members in Tonga after a volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, erupted last Friday beneath the ocean’s surface.

“My mom’s siblings and my dad’s siblings — some of them are still back on the island,” said Richards. “Me and my mom have not had any connection yet with the families, but little things are improving somewhat on the island. It’s a sense of reassurance.”

The explosion sent ash, steam and gas more than 10 miles into the sky, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

With help on the way, Richards hopes a healing space can help the Tongan community in the Portland area until they can hear from family members as well. Organizers are hoping to coordinate an in-person space this weekend or pivot to virtual due to a rise in COVID-19 cases of the omicron variant.

“Cry together or just be around with others,” described Richards.

As for resources to Tonga, she said community organizers are trying to pull together resources within the next week. Richards added that water and materials to re-build have been top of mind in sending aid to the country.

According to the Associated Press, the first flights carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga finally arrived Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left by the huge volcanic eruption.

When asked if the spread of COVID-19 from aid workers was worrisome for her, Richards shook her head up and down with her eyes wide open.

“They really need this support, but it’s very scary too because even a bit of COVID that gets into Tonga – everyone gets it, just like that,” she said while snapping her finger.

Despite the worry in the back of Richards’ mind, she said she’s grateful city leaders in the Portland metro area have contacted the local Tongan community on how they can help.

“This may not be as important as other crises, but they reached out first. We are dear to this city of Portland because the majority of us live here,” she said. “So, it’s important that they do recognize us. So, we’re so grateful for their initiative to reach out.”

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