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Before Tonga went quiet: Washington woman was texting with her sister as the tsunami surged

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This combination of satellite images taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), shows an undersea volcano eruption of the Pacific nation of Tonga Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.
This combination of satellite images taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), shows an undersea volcano eruption of the Pacific nation of Tonga Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (NICT via AP) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — On Friday at 8:58 p.m. the first text arrived from her sister in Tonga. It was 5:58 p.m. Saturday over there.

“Sis pray for us. There is a tsunami. It’s scary. We are escaping. It’s raining little rocks.”

Every day, Susana Elika Fakapulia, 39, of Spanaway, a mom of four who also works as a caregiver, is in some way chatting or texting on Facebook with her sister in Tonga.

In an earlier voice call, the sister, Moala Sili, 40, who lives in an apartment near the ocean in the capital of Nuku’alofa, had described, “The water is going down. It’s very low.”

The sister here warned, “That’s a sign for a tsunami. It will come back. When it does, it’ll overflow to land.”

Tonga is not a very populous country, even as it spreads across a chain of 170 islands in the South Pacific. Only three dozen of those islands are inhabited, according to the CIA World Factbook. Its population is 106,000, about the same as Everett.

Fakapulia helps at the Church of Tonga, which rents space at a Burien Lutheran church. She says its membership is around 10 families. The U. S. census estimates that in 2010 there were 1,100 Tongans in Washington. Both sisters were born in that country, with Fakapulia emigrating from there in 2001.

The Associated Press reported that the tsunami threat around the Pacific from a huge undersea volcanic eruption began to recede, while the extent of damage to Tonga remained unclear. All internet connectivity to Tonga had been lost.

As spread out as the Tongans are who emigrated, the internet helps unite them in both everyday and extraordinary times. Tsunami advisories reached the Washington coast some 9,000 miles away.

On Friday night, the texts continued.

Fakapulia says she wasn’t thinking she had to type out big, important thoughts.

“I wasn’t scared. The Tongan community is very strong in their faith,” she says.

“The little rocks are from the eruption of the volcano. It’s still up in the air,” Fakapulia told her sister in Tonga.

She answered, “We are at the airport,” which is on higher ground. She and her 16-year-old son had managed a ride there. A photo she sent from Tonga showed a bank in her neighborhood with water lapping on the steps, and water reaching the wood structure that’s the Royal Palace.

Spanaway: “Were you able to pack anything? I watched some live videos. The water is already downtown. How are you guys doing? [A heart symbol].”

Tonga: “My goodness this is scary. We’re OK. The rain with the rocks stopped. It’s now rain water mixed with ash.”

Spanaway: “I thought people started to evacuate yesterday.”

Tonga: “We started evacuating today. The waves are scary.”

Tonga: Describes the scene at the airport. “It’s packed with people.”

Spanaway: “Be careful.”

At that point, apparently the volcano erupts again.

Tonga: “Oh, my God, listen to the boom.”

Spanaway: “Can you video.”

Tonga: “The water is already downtown. I think it might wipe our car. The wave is already downtown.”

Spanaway: “Look at how strong the current is. Keep me updated. I love you both.”

Later Friday night, Fakapulia tries to reach her sister.

11:02 p.m.: “Sister, how are you guys. I watched some videos. I think [the water] is probably where you guys are living. The water is probably destroying …”

Fakapulia taps her keyboard again. There is no response from Tonga.

To keep up with what’s happening in the old country, Fakapulia clicks on the YouTube channel for Pasifika TV & Radio, which broadcasts to Tongans worldwide out of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

“Tsunami news & prayers” it banners as hosts take live on-air calls and there is a prayer chain. The language is Tongan but the emotions, as callers cry and their voices sometimes tremble, are clear. They are often punctuated with “amens.”

On the right side of the screen there are scrolling messages from the audience.

Someone named Tikku writes, “Can someone be friendly enough to give a status update on situation at the scene. Communications, casualties, more eruptions? My prayers go to everyone involved in the incident.”

Someone named Samiu replies, “Tikku, everyone is waiting for that news. At the moment there is no communication with Tonga.”

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