WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – Explosions from a volcano in Alaska can be heard, and waves crossing the ocean cause an oil spill and two drownings in Peru. The startling satellite images resemble a massive nuclear explosion.
And yet, despite being nearly atop a volcano that erupted violently on Saturday, the Pacific nation of Tonga appears to have avoided the widespread disaster that many initially feared.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the ash that has covered the main island and turned it into a gray moonscape, contaminating the rainwater that people rely on for drinking. The New Zealand military is sending fresh water and other necessary supplies, but said on Tuesday ash covering Tonga’s main runway would delay the flight for at least another day.
Tonga has so far reported two deaths, and concern remains about the fate of people on the two smaller, hard-hit islands. Communication was disrupted everywhere, making assessment more difficult.
But on the main island of Tongatapu, at least, life is slowly returning to normal. The tsunami that swept through coastal areas after the eruption frightened many people but only rose about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet), allowing most to escape.
“We are really apprehensive about the seriousness of what we see in the incident,” said Katie Greenwood, Pacific mission head of the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. unprecedented explosion there. “Fortunately, in those major population centers, we don’t see the dire consequences that we thought could happen, and that’s very good news.”
Greenwood, which is based in Fiji and has spoken to people in Tonga by satellite phone, said an estimated 50 homes were destroyed in Tongatapu but no one needed to use emergency shelter. She said about 90 people on the nearby island of ‘Eua’ were using shelters.
UN humanitarian officials and the government of Tonga have reported “significant infrastructure damage” around Tongatapu.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “There has been no communication from the Ha’apai Islands Group, and we are particularly concerned about two small islands located in low-lying areas – Mango and Fonoi – following surveillance flights. confirm substantial property damage”.
The New Zealand High Commissioner to Tonga also reported significant damage along Tongatapu’s west coast, including in resorts and riverside areas.
Like other island nations in the Pacific, Tonga is regularly subjected to the rigors of nature, be it tornadoes or earthquakes, making its people more resilient to the challenges they bring.
Indeed, Greenwood said Tonga did not want a large influx of relief workers after the eruption. Tonga is one of the few places left in the world that has managed to avoid any outbreak of the coronavirus, and officials fear that if outsiders bring in the virus, it could create a bigger disaster. much more than the disaster they are facing.
Another worry, Greenwood said, is that the volcano could erupt again. There is currently no working device around it that can help predict such an event, she said.
Satellite images captured the spectacular eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano Hunga Ha’apai on Saturday, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom over the South Pacific. The volcano is located about 64 km (40 mi) north of the Tonga capital Nuku’alofa.
Two people drowned in Peru, where an oil spill was also reported after waves moved a ship that was transferring oil at a refinery.
In Tonga, British woman Angela Glover, 50, was among those killed after being swept away by waves, her family said.
Nick Eleini said his sister’s body had been found and her husband was still alive. “I understand that this terrible accident happened when they were trying to rescue their dogs,” Eleini told Sky News. He says it has been his sister’s dream in life to live in the South Pacific and “she loves her life there.”
The New Zealand Army said it hoped the airport in Tonga would be open on Wednesday or Thursday. The military said it was considering an airdrop but that it was “not a priority for the Tongan authorities.”
New Zealand also sent a navy ship to Tonga on Tuesday, with another scheduled to leave later in the day and pledged an initial NZ$1 million ($680,000) support for recovery efforts. return.
Australia has sent a navy ship from Sydney to Brisbane to prepare for a support mission if needed.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday said China is preparing to send drinking water, food, personal protective equipment and other items to Tonga as soon as flights resume.
The UN World Food Program is looking to bring in relief supplies and additional staff and has received a request to restore communication lines in Tonga, home to about 105,000 people, Dujarric said.
Communication with the island nation was limited as the only underwater fiber optic cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world was likely to have been cut during the eruption. The company that owns the cable line said repairs could take several weeks.
Samiuela Fonua, chairman of the board at Tonga Cable Ltd., said it appears the cable broke shortly after the eruption. He said the cable, which is on top and inside the reef, can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would need to pull the cable up to assess the damage and then the crew would need to repair it. One break can take a week to fix, he says, while multiple breaks can take up to three weeks. He added that it was not clear when it was safe for an expedition ship near the undersea volcano to do the work.
Fonua said a second submarine cable connecting the islands in Tonga had also been cut. However, a local telephone network was in operation, allowing the Tongans to call each other. However, he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make it difficult for overseas satellite phone calls.
Associated Press journalist Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.