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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tongans in Hawaii mount relief effort after storm hits homeland

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Donation drives for the victims of Tropical Cyclone Rene, which caused major damage in Tonga, are still being planned. The Tonga Consular Agency said it will get word to Hawai'i residents on those efforts and where people can donate as soon as they are set.

To contact the agency and to be alerted of donation drives, call 953-2449.

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Tongans in Hawai'i spent much of yesterday trying to get through to relatives and friends back home and pledged to coordinate relief efforts in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Rene, which slammed into the island nation with winds of up to 140 mph, causing widespread damage.

Donation campaigns for money and supplies are expected to start late this week.

News from Tonga was still coming in last night, and there were mounting reports of damage to homes and buildings in Tonga's capital from the super-storm, which brought high winds and flooding. The Associated Press also reported cyclone damage in more rural areas of Tonga, a nation that consists of three main island groups.

There was no immediate word on any casualties or serious injuries.

Tongans here said yesterday they were slowly getting through to family members in Tonga, but communication was difficult because many telephone and power lines were down.

Pālolo resident Ema Arelliano, who has relatives in Tonga, said some of her friends were able to link up to people in Tonga through text messages.

"We'll just have to wait and see" how bad the destruction is, she said.

Tongans in Hawai'i said whatever the need, they're ready to help. It's something they do already, they said.

"We always help Tonga," said the Rev. Manako Kemoeatu of Kahuku United Methodist Church.

There are an estimated 10,000 Tongans in Hawai'i, many of whom often send money back home personally or through community drives to help the South Pacific's last kingdom stay afloat.

As much as 40 percent of Tonga's economy is based on remittances from Tongans living in the United States or other nations.

Donations from Tongans in Hawai'i will be crucial in helping the country get emergency supplies to people, Tongan community leaders here said yesterday. Those dollars could also go far in addressing more long-term rebuilding efforts.

Annie Kobayashi, honorary consular agent for the Tonga Consular Agency in Hawai'i, said she has no doubt Tongans in Hawai'i will come through for their friends and relatives back home.

"When the community gets together, it's wholeheartedly and with unity," Kobayashi said yesterday. "They do make a very marked difference in the lives of Tongans back home."

Cyclone Rene hit Tonga with wind gusts of up to 140 mph and torrential rains. The nation's National Disaster Committee deputy director called the cyclone possibly the worst in 50 years.

And Tongan police commander Chris Kelley said, "There has really been quite a bit of devastation."

He added, "There's widespread damage to crops ... (and) to buildings. There's trees across roads."

Even before the cyclone hit, many Tongans in Hawai'i were talking about mobilizing relief efforts.

Tupou Kelemeni, whose husband is pastor at First United Methodist Church on Beretania Street, said the urge to help is part of a culture of giving.

She also pointed out that so many Tongans have left the island nation that many feel compelled to share whatever they can with their homeland after securing good lives in the United States.

She added that Tongans in Hawai'i are ready and eager to plan relief efforts for cyclone victims.

"We have a lot of community organizations" ready to help, Kelemeni said.

Her husband, the Rev. Eddie Kelemeni, said poverty is relative in Tonga because so many get along with so little.

But, he said, most concerning about the storm is its reported damage to crops, since so many depend on locally grown food for their livelihood and for their own tables.

Kelemeni also agreed that the aid to the island nation from Tongans in Hawai'i will be significant. He said Tongan groups and even the Tongan government have come to Hawai'i in the past to raise money for different causes precisely because the community here is so generous.

"We just like to help other people," Kelemeni said.

Utu Langi, of Helping the Hungry Have Hope, said Tongans here also help those back home so much because they want them to know their hearts haven't left the island nation.

"It boosts their (Tongans') morale knowing there are people here still concerned about them," said Langi, whose mother and sister are in Tonga.

The last storm to cause major damage in Tonga was Tropical Cyclone Waka in 2002.

The storm destroyed dozens of buildings and decimated crops, spurring Tonga to ask for international aid.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.