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Three dead, homes destroyed in ‘unprecedented disaster’

Three people are dead and dozens of homes have been destroyed or damaged in what Tonga’s government has described as an “unprecedented disaster“, in its first official communication since a volcano-generated tsunami struck the Pacific nation.

The archipelago remains all but cut off from the outside world as ash from Saturday’s underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haa’pai eruption affects water supplies and prevents air arrivals and authorities rush to find a communication alternative to a damaged fibre-optic cable.

A full picture of the damage is still emerging but Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni’s office described two further deaths and devastating damage to three populated islands about 100km north-east of the main island of Tongatapu.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of Hunga Tonga Hunga Haapai volcano in Tonga on Dec. 24, 2021. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of Hunga Tonga Hunga Haapai volcano in Tonga on Dec. 24, 2021. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP) (AP/Maxar)

Every home was destroyed on Mango Island, with only two left standing on nearby Fonoifua Island and “extensive damage” on Nomuka.

About 100 people live on Mango and Fonoifua combined, with more than 200 on Nomuka, according to the 2021 census.

On the main island, almost 30 homes were “completely damaged” and another 55 “severely damaged”, with two more ruins on nearby ‘Eua and 45 houses “severely damaged, the government said.

There are hopes satellites can be used to restore some internet services but for now even communications between the kingdom’s many islands have been severely limited.

Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable, said the international fibre-optic cable appeared to have been severed soon after the eruption and could take weeks to fix.

Angela Glover was killed when a tsunami hit Tonga after the eruption of an underwater volcano on Saturday, January 15, 2022, her brother, Nick Eleini, said on Monday, January 17. (Angela Glover/Facebook)

Even domestic phone calls are available only within the two main islands and Niuas Island, further away from the volcano, is yet to be contacted.

“An unprecedented disaster hit Tonga caused by the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption on Saturday evening 15th January, 2022 followed by a tsunami warning issued which triggered a mass evacuation,” the government said.

“As a result of the eruption, a volcanic mushroom plume was released reaching the stratosphere and extending radially covering all Tonga Islands, generating tsunami waves rising up to 15m, hitting the west coasts of Tongatapu Islands, ‘Eua, and Ha’apai Islands.”

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the main port facilities in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. (AP)

It noted people had been evacuated from Mango, Fonoifua, the worst-affected parts of Tongatapu and some other islands.

Ah has transformed the main island it into a grey moonscape, contaminating the rainwater that people rely on to drink. 

New Zealand’s military is sending fresh water and other much-needed supplies, but said on Tuesday the ash covering Tonga’s main runway would delay the flight at least another day.

The tsunami that swept over coastal areas after the eruption was frightening for many but rose only about 80cm allowing most to escape.

In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defense Force volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in an area of Tonga, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Thick ash on an airport runway was delaying aid deliveries to the Pacific island nation of Tonga, where significant damage was being reported days after a huge undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami. (CPL Vanessa Parker/NZDF via AP)
In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defence Force volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in an area of Tonga. (CPL Vanessa Parker/NZDF via AP) (AP)

“We did hold grave fears, given the magnitude of what we saw in that unprecedented blast,” said Katie Greenwood, the head of delegation in the Pacific for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 

“Fortunately, in those major population centres we are not seeing the catastrophic effect we thought might happen, and that’s very good news.”

UN humanitarian officials and Tonga’s government have reported “significant infrastructural damage” around Tongatapu.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of Hunga Tonga Hunga Haapai volcano in Tonga on April 10, 2021. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of Hunga Tonga Hunga Haapai volcano in Tonga on April 10, 2021. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP) (AP/Maxar)

“There has been no contact from the Ha’apai Group of islands, and we are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands — Mango and Fonoi — following surveillance flights confirming substantial property damage,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

New Zealand’s High Commission in Tonga also reported significant damage along the western coast of Tongatapu, including to resorts and the waterfront area.

Like other island nations in the Pacific, Tonga is regularly exposed to the extremes of nature, whether it be cyclones or earthquakes, making people more resilient to the challenges they bring.

Indeed, Ms Greenwood said Tonga did not want an influx of aid workers following the eruption. Tonga is one of the few remaining places in the world that has managed to avoid any outbreaks of the coronavirus, and officials fear that if outsiders bring in the virus it could create a much bigger disaster than the one they’re already facing.

Another worry, she said, was that the volcano could erupt again. She said there was currently no working equipment around it that could help predict such an event.

In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defence Force volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in an area of Tonga, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Thick ash on an airport runway was delaying aid deliveries to the Pacific island nation of Tonga, where significant damage was being reported days after a huge undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami. (CPL Vanessa Parker/NZDF via AP) (AP)

Satellite images captured the spectacular eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific. The volcano is located about 64km north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.

Two people drowned in Peru, which also reported an oil spill after waves moved a ship that was transferring oil at a refinery.

New Zealand’s military said it hoped the airfield in Tonga would be opened either Wednesday or Thursday. The military said it had considered an airdrop but that was “not the preference of the Tongan authorities.”

Volcano eruption near Tonga looper

Blast so big it was seen from space

New Zealand also sent a navy ship to Tonga on Tuesday, with another planned to leave later in the day, and pledged an initial NZ$1 million ($940,000) toward recovery efforts.

Australia sent a navy ship from Sydney to Brisbane to prepare for a support mission if needed.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Tuesday said China was preparing to send drinking water, food, personal protective equipment and other supplies to Tonga as soon as flights resume.

The UN World Food Program is exploring how to bring in relief supplies and more staff and has received a request to restore communication lines in Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, Mr Dujarric said.

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