The government of Tonga issued its first statement since a violent volcanic eruption occurred Saturday that caused tsunami waves to wreak havoc across the country, leaving at least three people dead, towns destroyed, and the country without internet for several days.
“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 15 metres, hitting the west coasts of Tongatapu Islands, ‘Eva, and Ha’apai Islands,” the government said.
“To date, there are 3 confirmed fatalities including a British national; a 65-year-old female from Mango Island; and a 49-year-old male from Nomuka Island. There are also a number of injuries reported.”
The government said not a single house is left standing on Mango Island, only two houses remain on Fonoifua Island, and extensive damage has been caused to other islands. It added that evacuation efforts are underway across the country.
The volcanic ash that blanketed Tonga has severely affected water supplies and made any effort by Tonga’s neighbors to fly in support extremely dangerous.
“Challenges to sea and air transportation remain due to damage sustained by the wharves and the ash that is covering the runways,” the government said. “Domestic and international flights have been deferred until further notice as the airports undergo clean-up.”
The government added that communication is still a key issue, with internet still down while domestic phone calls can only operate within the areas of Tongatapu and ‘Eua.
The country could be without internet for up to two weeks with the undersea communications cables that connect Tonga to the rest of the world damaged.
Samiuela Fonua, the chairperson of the state-owned Tonga Cable Ltd, which owns and operates the cables, told the Guardian that it’s taking time to repair due to the risks that a subsequent volcanic eruption could endanger a repair ship.
“The main concern now is with the volcanic activities because our cables are pretty much on the same zone,” he said.
Modelling suggests there will be ongoing eruptions over the next few weeks, with and ongoing tsunami risk to Tonga and its neighbors.
Photos leaked online from a New Zealand Defense Force reconnaissance flight to Tonga show extensive damage to much of the country, with photos of Mango Island tagged as having “catastrophic damage.”
Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie said the images were “alarming.”
“People panic, people run and get injuries. Possibly there will be more deaths and we just pray that is not the case,” he told Reuters.
Tonga is made up of 169 islands, 36 of which are inhabited. It’s expected to take weeks to survey the scale of the damage.
Australia has so far committed A$1 million in funding for Tonga and has dispatched the HMAS Adelaide gunship, loaded with medical and engineering equipment, as well as personnel. Australian helicopters will use the vessel as a base to service populations on outer islands. Australian C130 Hercules aircraft will also leave for Tonga once the runway has been cleared. Further funding is expected once Australia receives detailed advice from the Tongan government.
New Zealand has also allocated NZ$1 million in funding and has said once the runway is clear it will dispatch its own C130 Hercules flight with humanitarian assistance.
“In the meantime, two Royal New Zealand Navy ships will depart New Zealand today. HMNZS Wellington will be carrying Hydrographic Survey and Diving Teams, as well as an SH-2G(I) Seasprite helicopter. HMNZS Aotearoa will carry bulk water supplies and humanitarian and disaster relief stores,” said Defense Minister Peeni Hernare
“Water is among the highest priorities for Tonga at this stage and HMNZS Aotearoa can carry 250,000 litres, and produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant.”
Tonga is currently COVID-free and operates strict border controls to keep the virus out. Continuing to keep COVID-19 out while bringing aid in will present significant challenges for the country.