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Powerful volcano eruption devastated life in Tonga

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SAN DIEGO — The people who live in Tonga are wearing masks these days. But it’s not because of the COVID-19 virus.

“Tonga is the only place where people are wearing them because of the ash,” said Lio Taulanga, the leader of the Tongan Catholic community in the Diocese of San Diego.

He recently shared details of what occurred in his homeland on Jan. 15, when an undersea volcano erupted with such power that its shock waves were felt around the world. The eruption triggered a tsunami that flattened homes on nearby islands, killing three people. And it spewed thick ash that blanketed the islands, ruining crops and damaging  the water supply of the nation’s 100,000 residents.

Taulanga was born on the island of Eua, one of the 169 islands that make up the nation, 36 of which are inhabited. His mother, three sisters and their children live on the island. He said they struggled to get drinking water in the days after the eruption.

“They had to drink coconut water” until relief workers arrived, bringing food and water.

The workers brought something else, COVID-19. Previously, there had been no cases of the virus on the islands, he said. Fortunately, the local population has a high vaccination rate, and most COVID cases were mild ones, he added.

The eruption damaged an underwater cable that provided phone communication to the islands. He’s had to keep in touch with his family through Facebook messages.

Taulanga plans to send supplies to his family members, but packages can take a month or more to reach them, he said.

Catholics are the third-largest religious population in Tonga, after Methodists and Mormons, which together comprise “99 percent of the people on the islands,” he said.

He estimated that 10 families make up the local Tongan Catholic community, one of the more than 20 cultural communities in the diocese. His home parish is St. Kieran’s in El Cajon; other families are members of parishes across the San Diego region.

The Tongan families used to come together once a month, but the gatherings have been suspended due to the pandemic.

He was asked what his fellow Catholics could do to help his countrymen back home.

“Prayer is always good.”

To donate to Catholic Relief Services, which is assisting the residents of Tonga, visit crs.org.

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