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'Shirtless Hot Tongan' Pita Taufatofua raises nearly $750K for 'unprecedented' tsunami relief

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Pita Taufatofua, known more widely as the "Hot Tongan Flag Bearer" for his shirtless entrances at the Olympics, has raised nearly $750,000 for his home country after a tsunami caused by a volcanic eruption devastated the islands.

The dual-sports athlete told BBC's Newsday there has been no communication with the main island yet and the money will go toward hospitals, schools, water purification plants or other places in need. The goal is to raise $1 million.

"Anything that needs help, we're ready to go when communication opens," he told BBC's Newsday. In the GoFundMe, he said a team would be on the ground in Tonga to assess needs as soon as possible.

Taufatofua, 38, became an instant Olympic icon when he carried the flag shirtless and oiled up at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he competed in taekwondo. He returned at the 2018 Winter Olympics doing the same in negative temperatures in PyeongChang and carried the nation's flag again at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics held last summer. He became the first person to compete in three consecutive Olympics since the first ever Winter Games in 1924.

Taufatofua said he is currently in Australia training for the 2022 Beijing Olympics that begin next month. He competes in the winter in cross-country skiing.

Volcanic eruption felt in Tonga, Peru, Japan

An underwater volcanic approximately 40 miles from Tonga erupted on Saturday, setting off a tsunami that impacted places 6,000 miles away from the site of the volcano. Two women died on the beaches in the initial event and seawater flooded coastal areas of Peru on Sunday, forcing authorities to close several beaches, per the New York Times. Four-foot waves hit islands in Japan.

Tonga, home to about 100,000 residents, was largely cut off from the rest of the world because the eruption cut undersea communication cables. Information has trickled out through a few satellite phones and full connectivity could take a month to fix. It means the full scope of the disaster has not yet been realized.

Shirtless Tongan's fundraising after tsunami

Tonga flag bearer Pita Taufatofua
Flag bearer Pita Taufatofua of Tonga is fundraising to help his home country after a devastating tsunami. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Taufatofua said in the GoFundMe created the day of the tsunami that he has yet to hear from his father, the Governor of Haapai. He was on the main island of Tongatapu when the volcano erupted. His family home on Haapai, a series of low-lying islands with no elevation, is safe and his family uninjured, he told BBC Newsday early Wednesday.

"Just received word that our family on the main island of Haapai is safe and that our Ha'apai home 'Fuino' is still standing! It's over 100 years old and has been through many cyclones and now a tsunami," Taufatofua wrote, via CNN.

"Still no word from my Father or our family on Kotu and surrounding lower islands."

Buildings near the water were completely flattened and images released by the country's consulate in the European Union show everything covered in ash. Relief planes have had difficulty landing and delivering food and water because of the dust, according to BBC News.

The Tongan government called it an "unprecedented disaster." The Red Cross said Wednesday it had "joyfully and happily" made contact with its team in the country for the first time, per BBC News.

"Unfortunately there is devastating news from Tonga overnight with the loss and destruction of homes," its Pacific Head of Delegation Katie Greenwood told the BBC's Newsday.

Red Cross teams will first work to distribute clean drinking water. First aid ships from nearby New Zealand and Australia are expected to arrive on Friday. There is concern that aid could also bring positive COVID-19 cases to the small islands. They didn't have their first positive case until October 2021.

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