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All homes on one of Tonga's islands destroyed; three dead after volcano eruption, tsunami

Communications badly hampered by the severing of undersea cable



aThis satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the main port facilities in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. –ÃP
aThis satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the main port facilities in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. –ÃP

By AFP

Published: Tue 18 Jan 2022, 7:04 PM

Last updated: Tue 18 Jan 2022, 7:15 PM

All the homes on one of Tonga's small outer islands have been destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, with three people so far confirmed dead, the government said on Tuesday in its first update since the disaster struck.

With communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of the devastation after Saturday's eruption had so far mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.

But the office of Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said in a statement that every home on Mango island, where around 50 people live, had been destroyed, only two houses remained on Fonoifua, and Namuka island had suffered extensive damage.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, earlier said pictures taken by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) showed "alarming" scenes of a village destroyed on Mango and buildings missing on Atata island, which is closer to the volcano.

"People panic, people run and get injuries. Possibly there will be more deaths and we just pray that is not the case," Tu’ihalangingie told Reuters.

Sovaleni's office said a 65-year-old woman on Mango Island and a 49-year-old man on Nomuka Island had been killed, in addition to the British national whose body was found on Monday. A number of injuries were also reported.

Tsunami waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the Ha’apia island group, where Mango is located, and the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the prime minister's office said. Residents were being moved to evacuation centres as 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.

Atata and Mango are between about 50 and 70 km from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean when it erupted with a blast heard 2,300 km (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand.

Satellite images from Sunday show the caldera of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai has collapsed and the island has lost a substantial percentage of its initial surface area, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A thick layer of ash blankets the islands, the aerial images provided to Tonga by New Zealand and Australia showed.

As well as the damage locally, scientists say the eruption could have a long lasting impact on coral reefs, coastlines and fisheries in the wider region, as well as causing acid rain.

Clean water sources remain a concern and the government has advised people to drink only bottled water as sources may be contaminated with ash, debris and the sea, the OCHA said.

The Tongan navy has deployed with health teams and water, food and tents to the Ha'apai islands, with more aid sent on Tuesday, the prime minister's office said.

Tonga is expected to issue formal requests for aid soon but in the meantime New Zealand said two ships, HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa, had set off with water supplies, survey teams and a helicopter. U.N. teams are on standby, the OCHA said.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said C-130 aircraft from Australia could deliver humanitarian assistance including water purification supplies, while the HMAS Adelaide, which would take five days to get to Tonga, was ready to take engineering and medical teams and helicopter support.

"The impact not just of the inundation but of the extraordinary volume of ash, which is covering everything, plus the communications issues, of course, makes this very difficult," Payne said.

The PM's office said some limited communications had been made with satellite phones, but some areas remained cut off.

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International mobile phone network provider Digicel has set up an interim system on the main island using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish, New Zealand said.

Subcom, a U.S. based private company contracted to repair subsea cables in the Asia-Pacific, said it was working with Tonga Cable Ltd to repair the link that runs from Tonga to Fiji.


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