The Salt Lake City, Utah skyline. Salt Lake City has emerged as a center of the Tongan American community [Image: Skyguy414 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

In the Wake of the Hunga Tonga Eruption, Utahans Rally to Help Tonga

The Pacific

On January 15, 2022, an underwater volcano off the western coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, erupted for the first time in nearly 1000 years. The resulting explosion, and the tsunami it created, devastated the island nation. With a force hundreds of times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II, this event was the most powerful recorded eruption since Mount Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991. The resulting nearly 50-foot tsunami devastated the country and even severed Tonga’s main communication line with the rest of the world for days. Since then, countries far away have faced repercussions, such as when a resulting tsunami caused an oil spill off the coast of Peru. Despite this, people across the globe have sought to support Tongans displaced by the disaster. One of the centers of this movement to help Tonga is found nearly 6,000 miles away – in Utah.

Throughout Utah, various organizations have been hard at work setting up donation drives and raising funds to support humanitarian efforts in Tonga. Honor365, a nonprofit focused on supporting veterans, first responders, and their families, held a donation drive through January 29 with drop-off locations across the state to provide relief supplies to effected Tongans. Another Utah-based group, the National Tongan American Society, has set up a GoFundMe to raise funds for the Tongan government and/or religious leaders to support those effected by the recent disaster. Furthermore, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is sending aid to Tonga while LDS congregations both within and outside of Utah have been donating supplies for the islands.

Tonga and Utah have long-reaching connections to one another, strengthened first and foremost through their shared religious heritage. Tonga has the most Mormons as a percentage of its population in the entire world, with the LDS Church stating roughly 60% of Tongans are church members. The reality is slightly more complicated, as not all registered church members attend services regularly and many identify with other religious congregations, leading the US government to estimate the Methodist-affiliated Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga remains dominant. Nonetheless, the Mormon presence in Tonga is quite significant, leading many Tongans to choose to settle in Utah, the spiritual and cultural center of the LDS church (the church is headquartered in Salt Lake City and over half of Utahans identify as Mormon). This shared religious heritage, as well as abundant educational and economic opportunities, has led to Utah hosting the second largest Tongan community in the United States, behind California but surpassing even Hawaiʻi. Over 30 Tongan LDS congregations serve many of the over 13,000 Tongan Utahans, while remittances from this community continue to support Tonga’s development. Tongan culture is readily apparent in the state, with Brigham Young University offering courses in the Tongan language and local restaurants such as Pacific Seas Restaurant serving Tongan food to Tongan and non-Tongan Utahans alike. These long-standing ties between Utah and Tonga are becoming even more apparent in light of the recent tragedy off Tongatapu, as Utahans rally to help friends, family, and religious institutions recover and rebuild their communities.

Michael Di Girolamo is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a first-year graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.