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Olympian Pita Taufatofua – the viral shirtless Tongan – helps country recover from volcano

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When Pita Taufatofua was out fishing on Saturday near his home in Brisbane on the Australian coast, he felt "somewhat of a disturbance" that compelled him to check his phone, something he never does while fishing.

It was then through numerous text messages the three-time Olympian and viral sensation received he found out his home country of Tonga, roughly 2,000 miles away, had been impacted by an active underwater volcano as one of the biggest eruptions in decades covered much of the island nation with ash and sent tsunami waves throughout the Pacific coasts.

Taufatofua didn't hear nor see the blast, but he didn't have much time to check in with his family because the single underwater fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world was severed, likely from the eruption, meaning Tongans are unable to use the internet or speak with anyone outside of the country. Connection is expected to be out for several weeks.

Luckily, Taufatofua said there are some satellite phones on the islands, so not all outside communication is lost. But only "trickled information" has been able to been relayed, so no one really knows the full extent of damage on the islands.

Pita Taufatofua leads the delegation from Tonga during the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.
Pita Taufatofua leads the delegation from Tonga during the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.

It wasn't until Tuesday when officials from New Zealand, Australia and UNOSAT, the United Nations satellite center, were able to take satellite and aerial images of the nation to assess the damage. What is known as a beautiful, green nation is now covered in dark ash, and water could still be seen alongside buildings wrecked from the tsunami waves. The Associated Press reported the small islands of Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua were badly damaged, with few homes still standing.

Government officials said on Tuesday they have confirmed the deaths of a British woman and two local residents. However, the toll is expected to rise as more reports come in from outlying areas.

After a few days without hearing anything from his family, Taufatofua was able to confirm some relatives on the central island of Ha'apai were safe, with their home intact.

But there's still one person he doesn't know about: his father.

"I haven't heard from him. He was on a different island," Taufatofua told USA TODAY.

Taufatofua's father, Pita Faiva, was on the main island of Tongatapu. He was about to get on a flight back to Ha'apai, but the eruption canceled his flight. The last known thing about his father is he was securing their home on the lagoon edge.

But even with the uncertainty of his father and other relatives, Taufatofua said this isn't a time for him to sulk, but rather do anything he can for the entire country of around 105,000 people.

"I have no choice. When times get tough is when we actually have to stand up," he said. "It's not a time for me to sit back and worry about my own personal feelings. That stuff, I can deal with it afterward. There's work that needs to be done, so I've got to stand up and help do what I can to get it done. So yeah, there is no choice."

Taufatofua first gained worldwide attention at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, as a taekwondo athlete and the flag bearer for Tonga who appeared shirtless, oiled up in tapa cloth, a traditional Tongan costume. He did it again at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang when he competed in cross-country skiing and reprised the role for a third time at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

By sending social media into a frenzy at the past three opening ceremonies, the two-sport athlete and UNICEF ambassador has amassed hundreds of thousands of social media followers. Ever since the eruption, he has used his following to provide updates on what's going on in Tonga.

"The platform doesn't mean anything to me if I can't help other people," Taufatofua said. He added that it is hard to find Tonga on a map, but when people do find it "they just see dots and words" and not the beauty of the islands, full of people willing to offer anything they have for guests.

"It represents one of the few pristine places in the world," he said. "We're a poor country in terms of finances, but very rich in the human heart."

Like government officials have said, the needs of Tongan people are depending on what has been observed, which is expected to happen more often in coming days. There is hope that most of the country was spared from damage.

Taufatofua says the country relies on rainwater to use, but that can't be used with all of the islands covered in ash, making drinking water a top priority. Another priority he notes is making sure the island has enough medical resources to care for anyone injured and those who have inhaled the volcanic ash. After immediate resources, then officials will look into how livelihoods are impacted.

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To help, Taufatofua launched a GoFundMe to raise money to help his native island. As of Wednesday evening, over $490,000 has been raised. He said he is grateful for all of the donations, and the money will be used to help with immediate needs, as well as help rebuilding homes and other structures.

The proud Tongan was able to work with UNICEF and the Australian government to send their first shipment of supplies and resources to the nation on Tuesday.

While there are losses of life and destruction, Taufatofua said he knows his home country will bounce back. The islands are annually hit with cyclones, notably the devastating category 4 storm Tropical Cyclone Gita in 2018, one of the most intense storms to ever hit the nation since recording began. It caused millions of dollars worth of damage to a country with a GDP around 58 times smaller than Vermont.

But each time they get hit with adversity, the nation gets back on its feet, and it will be the same this time around.

"Tongans are some of the most resilient people on this planet," Taufatofua said. "We get given challenges, but we band together and we always come out still standing."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Shirtless Tongan' Pita Taufatofua: Olympian helps home after volcano