Tonga Olympian Pita Taufatofua working to help homeland after devastating volcano, tsunami

Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofua carried his country's flag during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Sean M. Haffey/AFP/Getty Images

Tonga Olympian Pita Taufatofua, who captured the world's attention as a bare-chested flag bearer at the 2016 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies, is now trying to focus the world's attention on helping Tonga recover from a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Taufatofua, a climate activist, ambassador for UNICEF, motivational speaker and advocate for ending youth homelessness, has pledged his time, effort and influence to help his home country as it copes with the destruction caused Saturday when Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, an underwater volcano just miles from Tonga's coast, erupted, sending volcanic ash 100,000 feet into the air. The eruption, which could be seen from space, also caused a tsunami.

The United Nations has said there are "at least three dead, amid severe destruction." Water inundated the nation, made up of about 170 islands, which also was shrouded in a cloud of ash. Its 100,000 people were knocked off the grid when a fiber-optic cable in the ocean was sliced. It was reported Thursday that some communication to Tonga has been restored and some aid flights have arrived. But as of late Wednesday, Taufatofua had not been able to contact his father, who is the governor of Ha'apai -- a group of islands within the archipelago.

Taufatofua started a GoFundMe page, which aims to raise $1 million. There has been more than $560,000 donated so far. While money can help those suffering on the ground in Tonga, it cannot provide comfort to their relatives around the world who've been left in limbo. Taufatofua has been spreading awareness for his people and their families while training in Brisbane, Australia, though he has not qualified for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin on Feb. 4.

Taufatofua, bare-chested, oiled up and smiling, garnered global attention in August 2016 when he wore a traditional ta'ovala and led his delegation as Tonga's flag bearer at the Rio Olympics. It would be a recurring role. Taufatofua, who competed in taekwondo, quickly became a viral sensation. Less than two years later, he was Tonga's first winter Olympian, transitioning to cross-country skiing in Pyeongchang. Three years after that, at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, he became the first athlete to appear in three straight Games since the Winter Olympics began in 1924.

Taufatofua spoke with ESPN on Wednesday as his home country navigates through what its prime minister called an "unprecedented disaster." The following was condensed and edited for clarity.

How are communications on the island?

We've had minimal communication with the island and haven't been able to get the aid that we'd want to get to there just yet. There's a very basic 2G network that's been temporarily set up for one of the cellphone companies. I haven't been able to get through to anyone personally. Our family in Ha'apai, they have managed to get two pictures and a short message off, saying "the waves have come through the house. It's still standing. Everyone is OK." And that was it. There was no communication back the other way. They had managed to get that out. I don't know how. But that was all. I know that if they could get out more, they would've. I felt relieved [to have heard from them]. The fact that you have a home [still standing] means that you are safer going forward. I know that home is on the water. Every home in Ha'apai is on the water, but our home being no different was right on the water's edge.

Your family home in Ha'apai, known as "Fuino," has been around for 100 years?

That's the house that we own as a whole family home. [It] has been through many, many cyclones, too many to count. And it's weathered many storms. It's never been through a tsunami. So, it didn't go through a tsunami ... the tsunami went through it. But it still stood, so we have a bit of pride in that family home in Haʻapai. "Fuino" is the license plate of our car back in Tonga as well. But it's the original name of the home. And it means the grouping of six. My father would probably explain a better once I can get in contact with him.

What has happened to your father, who is also named Pita Taufatofua?

My father became the governor of Haʻapai. Our family in Ha'apai [that I was in communication with] is on separate island from my father. He worked in government for over 40 years in agriculture. He gave the agricultural impact assessment for the last cyclone. He's a man of service. His whole life has been about serving people. And he was retired until he was appointed by the prime minister [late last month]. So, he's got his work cut out for him.

What are the conditions currently like in Tonga?

It's devastating what they're living in because we've got this layer of ash cloud that's covering the 170-plus islands. When people saw [the videos of] that huge mushroom cloud, to think that in the center of that there's a country, and all of that [ash] then falls back and settles on our roofs. Drinking water is being affected. [There's also the] respiratory health of the people breathing in this sulfur-rich dust. And what we're just finding out now is that there's the devastating impact on agriculture as well. Because in the long term, the volcanic ash is good for the soil. In the short term, it destroys plant life. There's no photosynthesis because every leaf is covered. And then if it were to rain, you have acidic rain.

How do those conditions impact the country more broadly?

For a country that relies on agriculture, one for eating -- we eat the food that we produce -- but it's our largest export. What are we going to eat? What are we going to send out to bring in money to help us import products now? This is the greatest impact. Over the next six months to a year, we'll really start to see the impact. It may even be within the next few weeks, in terms of respiratory health. There are proven links between volcanic eruptions and ash fallout with increased morbidity.

What is your understanding of the role climate change has played in these natural disasters?

In this particular incident [the eruption that led to the tsunami], I don't have enough information. I don't personally understand the interaction between changing climate and what's happening from a volcanologist's perspective. But the sea level has already risen. I remember being in the islands [in the past], and you'd see where the sea would come to and, then now, even before this happened, it's getting closer and closer to our home. The danger is that the creep is so slow that it can happen over, say, 100 years or 50 years. It's so slow that it's not alarming enough. There is a link [to climate change] in that the sea level was already higher, and then you get a tsunami.

[Climate change] is a big topic in the Pacific -- in Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, all of the islands -- because we're seeing it happen. I do understand the climate has always been changing. We've gone through ice ages. But the level and the speed of the change ... it's meant to happen over 10, 20,000 years. Not over a few.

How are you handling all of this?

Probably the most difficult part is not knowing. But I've had to put that aside to some degree. I don't have the option of crawling into my room and putting my blanket over and crying into my pillow and wondering what's going on. Now is the time we've got to work, right? We've got to stand up. When things get difficult is when Tongans -- and people in general -- got to stand up and push forward. I don't think there's a whole lot that that can be done to stop a volcano. When mother nature wants to erupt, there's not much that we can do to stop this process. The best that we can do is to prepare for it should it happen again.

What is being done to help?

We created this GoFundMe page called Tonga Tsunami Relief by Pita Taufatofua. Thousands and thousands of people from all over the world have started to donate. And our target of $1 million represents the price to rebuild [a] school, should a school have been damaged. And then from there, it's about hospitals, infrastructure going forward -- water, solar, whatever the needs of the people will be. Our biggest donation is from a company called Beach Token, which [helps fund ocean conservation around the world]. They gave $10,000. But even the people that were giving $5, or just messages of support, we have the same appreciation for everybody.

What are your plans for the 2022 Olympics and your athletic career?

I'll be releasing more about the Olympic Games in the next week and a half, so I want all the focus of the moment just to be on Tonga. A lot of people have asked. I'll be talking more about what our plans are coming up from a sports perspective. I wasn't qualified for any sport in any Olympics before this [disaster in Tonga]. But when I say [I'm in] training camp, it's because I'm always in training. I've done two Olympic sports, and the goal is to qualify for three Olympic sports, which includes sprint kayak.

How do you think your celebrity can help the recovery effort?

I'm just one of many people who are trying to help. I don't want people to think that I'm anything special when it comes to that [recovery] effort. In Tonga, I'm very well known. I wear oil. But there are people on the ground who have been working for the last few days. And the government is doing a fantastic job. People around the world have been helping. It's not just the people who are donating, it's [getting the story out there], and this has allowed more governments to now come in and help us as well.