It was very early Saturday morning when Tony and Salote Puloka, of Burien, found out about the natural disaster in Tonga, their homeland.
A friend sent a text telling them to turn on the news.
They learned of the eruption of the massive undersea Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano that sent a plume of smoke and ash 24 miles into the air, created tsunami waves that were felt across the Pacific Ocean and was heard as far away as Alaska and New Zealand.
Tony was born and raised in the capital city of Nuku’alofa. He moved to Washington in 1983, and graduated from Central Washington University. He now runs his own real estate and contracting companies.
As the Pulokas helplessly watched accounts of the disaster on their television, he recalled the 7.0 earthquake of 1977 and the chaos that followed.
“I immediately flashed back to that, thinking of the people and feeling helpless,” he said. “I asked, ‘What can I do from here?’”
So far, three people have been confirmed killed in the volcanic eruption and the tsunami that followed. Several small settlements were wiped off the map.
The Pulokas decided to do something that is becoming common among diasporic communities when their homelands are hit by tragedy: begin fundraising through the internet.
In cooperation with Radio Tonga Seattle, Tony Puloka set up a fundraiser on GoFundMe named “Tonga Volcanic Disaster Relief.” Donations will be used to buy water purifiers, clean water, food, supplies and other relief resources to send to disaster areas, he said.
“The latest news is that 80% of the population is affected and that people need everything,” he said.
His is one of at least three GoFundMe fundraisers set up by Tongans living in the Seattle area that have been verified by the online fundraising business, according to a GoFundMe spokesperson.
Another verified fundraiser is named ‘Disaster Cash Assistance for Citizens of Tonga,’ and was set up by Celina Tupou-Fulivai, a Tacoma resident and descendant of the Kingdom of Tonga royalty.
Tupou-Fulivai runs an e-commerce business selling socially conscious apparel and handicrafts from the nation of islands, and is actively involved with the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington.
The focus of her fundraiser is to get money into the hands of the people who need it fast, she said.
Money raised through this GoFundMe is already being distributed in $240 increments directly to Tongan residents who have filled out an application for assistance, she said. An additional 34 applications are in the process.
Tupou-Fulivai said she understands that people can be wary of online donations. It is possible to connect donors directly to the people that need the donations, she said.
“We are happy to connect people directly as long as they are able to give at least $240,” she said on Wednesday.
A third verified fundraiser, named ‘Help save and rebuild the Kingdom of Tonga,’ was set up by Suliasi Tapaka, a Tongan who was born and raised in Seattle. Tapaka spent the past eight years living in Tonga.
Tapaka returned to Seattle at the end of last year after his mother passed away. His wife and three kids remain on the islands.
“So help me by doing right, and helping the people of Tonga and their families recover from this tragedy,” he said on the fundraiser page.