Taylorsville woman heard Tonga volcano eruption while speaking with frightened relatives on the phoneFeb 23, 2022 07:37PM ● By Carl Fauver
Taylorsville resident Ivoni Nash was on the phone with relatives in Tonga when she heard the devastating volcano eruption that has upended lives there. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
It’s almost always tomorrow in Tonga. And right now, a month-and-a-half after an underwater volcano devastated that South Pacific country, Tongans are still working long, hard days to improve their tomorrows.
The 105,000 people who inhabit the 170-plus islands that make up Tonga are just west of the International Date Line, 20 hours ahead of Utah in the winter and 19 hours ahead after our clocks spring forward. So, unless you’re on the phone with someone there between midnight and 5 a.m. our time, you’re talking to tomorrow.
That’s what Taylorsville resident Ivoni Nash was doing at 9:14 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14, which was 5:14 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15, for her nervous relatives in Tonga. They were on edge, because scientists had been warning the volcano, named Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai was giving every indication it was about to blow.
Then it did.
“I was on the line with my cousins, who already knew a tsunami was coming (caused by an earlier, much smaller eruption),” Nash, 75, said. “I was scared to death for them. We had been talking about 10–15 minutes when I heard the eruption over the phone. It was so loud. Then the phone went dead.”
Scientists have since described the eruption as “the strongest anywhere on earth in more than 30 years, more powerful than 100 atomic bombs.” An Oxford University researcher reported, the measured height of the volcanic ash plume (24 miles) was the “highest ever detected in earth’s atmosphere.”
In the days following the cataclysmic eruption, Ivoni heard all these staggering statistics, just like everyone else. But what she could not here for well over a week, were any of her relatives’ voices.
“The phone lines remained down day after day,” she said. “We tried to Facebook call, but that wasn’t working. We did finally hear from others in the area that electricity had been restored. But it was horrible not being able to reach them.”
Nash did finally learn here relatives were uninjured and their homes had not been damaged by the tsunami. But, like everyone in the region, their rooftops and cars had been damaged by falling ash and rocks from the eruption. The thick coating of ash also killed crops and family gardens almost instantly.
Ivoni was born in Tonga in 1946 and immigrated to Utah to attend college in 1968. Four years later she married Utah native Michael Nash. The parents of one son and grandparents to his four teenage children will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year.
The couple moved to Taylorsville in 1976, the same year Ivoni earned her United States citizenship.
Nash is now the program director for the Murray-based National Tongan American Society.
According to NTAS literature: “The Tongan population continues to be the fastest growing and largest Pacific Islander community in Utah. Founded in 1994, NTAS, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is one of the longest running organizations to advocate for and empower Tongan-Americans and other Pacific Islanders.”
Ivoni is one of only two paid NTAS employees. The other is Executive Director and Co-Founder Fahina Tavake-Pasi. She too still has lots of family in Tonga. And they suffered even more dire consequences from the volcano eruption than Nash’s relatives.
“Between my husband and I, we have a couple of hundred relatives in Tonga,” Tavake-Pasi said. “My auntie and other relatives were not particularly hard hit. But the tsunami completely wiped out the family home my husband grew up in. It was one of two of his relatives’ homes that were destroyed. The water took everything. And they were not beachfront houses. They were a couple streets in from the beach.”
Fahina and her husband, Ala Pasi, have already wired money to their family members. But they are also working with others here in Utah, to do something much more significant later this year.
“We are going to send a barge loaded with construction supplies and other essentials from Oakland (California) to Tonga sometime this summer or fall,” she said. “My brother has arranged for a barge to be donated., but now we have to contract a tugboat to haul it. Since we’re not sure gasoline will be available in Tonga when the barge arrives, the tugboat will have to haul cans of gas for the round trip.”
For the record, the distance from Oakland to the Tongan capital of Nuku‘alofa is 5,324 miles, or 10,648 round trip. Cost estimates for the massive humanitarian undertaking are not yet available. Anyone interested in donating to the effort can learn more about it at the National Tongan American Society website, ntasutah.org.
When NTAS is not focused on coordinating volcano disaster relief efforts, the organization remains busy in many other ways. Funded almost entirely through federal grants, NTAS maintains several different programs designed to meet varying needs of the Utah Tongan community.
The NTAS Mission Statement reads: “The mission of the NTAS is to provide services and resources that will maximize the living standards and opportunities for Tongan people. We act as advocates for Tongan citizens to local, state, federal and international institutions and organizations.”
Among its offerings, NTAS offers adult English language classes, assists qualified individuals in obtaining medical benefits for children and provides domestic violence intervention, administered by licensed social workers.
“Utah has the highest Pacific Islander population, per capita, of any state in the country,” Nash said. “It’s only natural the National Tongan American Society would be headquartered here. But we serve Tongans in many different states and even some in other countries. We help with immigration papers; we’ve hosted COVID-19 vaccination clinics; and every summer we coordinate a big festival that draws about 3,500 people.”
The “Friendly Islands Tongan Festival” will mark its 25th year, this Aug. 12–14, at Salt Lake’s Jordan Park (1060 South 900 West).
Ivoni Nash also hosts a weekly, bilingual public affairs radio program on KRCL 90.9 FM. The show, “Tala Koula” airs from 10 p.m. to midnight on Sundays.
"Tala means ‘to tell’ and koula means ‘gold,’" Nash said. "Golden messages are very important messages. That's what Tala Koula means. We are telling really important messages to the people in our community.”
If you listen to that program until it ends at midnight—and then quickly call a friend in Tonga to tell them about it—you’ll both be speaking on Monday. But if you wait four hours, you’ll once again be talking to tomorrow.