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Damage in tsunami-hit Tonga hampering relief efforts

/ 11:19 AM January 18, 2022
Damage in tsunami-hit Tonga hampering relief efforts

An eruption occurs at the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai off Tonga, January 14, 2022 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Video recorded January 14, 2022. Tonga Geological Services/via REUTERS

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON — Significant damage was reported along the western coast of Tonga’s main island and outer islands on Tuesday following a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, but a closed airport and downed communications are hampering international relief efforts.

The New Zealand High Commission reported the damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where there are many vacation resorts, and the waterfront of the capital Nuku’alofa.

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The Ha’atafu Beach Resort on the Hihifo peninsula, 21 km (13 miles) west of Nuku’alofa, was “completely wiped out,” the owners said on Facebook.

Australia’s Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said Tongan officials were planning to evacuate people from outer islands where “they’re doing it very tough, we understand, with many houses being destroyed in the tsunami.”

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The eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and was heard some 2,300 kms (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand.

The South Pacific archipelago has remained largely cut off from the world since the eruption which cut its main undersea communications cable.

A thick layer of ash blankets the entire island, the High Commission said, adding it was working to establish communications with smaller islands “as a matter of priority.”

British national Angela Glover, 50, was killed in the tsunami as she tried to rescue the dogs she looked after at a rescue shelter, her brother said, the first known death from the disaster.

There are no official reports of injuries or deaths yet but internet and telephone communications are extremely limited and outlying coastal areas remain cut off.

“We don’t have any further information that would suggest… significant casualties, although, as you would appreciate, information is still relatively patchy,” Seselja told Nine’s Today show on Tuesday.

“The priority now will to be get supplies to Tonga, and the biggest constraint on that at the moment … is the airport.

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There is still a significant amount of ash,” he said.

The airport was now more likely to be open by Wednesday, he said.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, said Tonga was concerned that aid deliveries could spread COVID-19 to the COVID-free nation.

“We don’t want to bring in another wave – a tsunami of COVID-19,” Tu’ihalangingie told Reuters by telephone, urging the public to wait for a disaster relief fund to donate.

Any aid sent to Tonga would need to be quarantined, and it was likely no foreign personnel would be allowed to disembark aircraft, he said.

The Red Cross said it was mobilizing its network to respond to what it called the worst volcanic eruption the Pacific has experienced in decades.

Alexander Matheou, the Red Cross’ Asia Pacific director, said water purification to remove ash contamination, providing shelter and reuniting families were the priorities.

Distress signal

The United Nations said a distress signal was detected in an isolated, low-lying Ha’apai islands group, adding it had particular concerns about Fonoi and Mango islands. According to the Tonga government, 36 people live on Mango and 69 on Fonoi.

A satellite image posted by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicated there was damage to scores of structures on Nomuka island.

“Further volcanic activity cannot be ruled out,” OCHA said, reporting only minor injuries but emphasizing that formal assessments, especially of the outer islands, had yet to be determined.

The impact of the huge eruption was felt as far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Japan. Two people drowned off a beach in northern Peru due to high waves caused by the tsunami, while officials in Japan reported several evacuations.

The island of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai all but disappeared following the blast, according to satellite images from around 12 hours later, making it difficult for volcanologists to monitor ongoing activity. Experts said the volcano, which last erupted in 2014, had been puffing away for about a month before Saturday’s eruption.

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