Images reveal devastation in tsunami-hit Tonga

Heavy ash fall over Nomuka in Tonga after the nation was hit by a tsunami triggered by an undersea volcanic eruption on Jan 17, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Ash covered homes and buildings after the main eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Jan 18, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (AFP) - A volcano that exploded on the Pacific island nation of Tonga has almost disappeared from view, new images revealed on Tuesday (Jan 18), with swathes of the island nation smothered in grey ash and dust or damaged by a tsunami.

The volcano erupted 30km into the air on Saturday and deposited ash, gas and acid rain across a large area of the Pacific.

New Zealand said two people have been confirmed killed, citing Tonga police on the island.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a statement on Tuesday that its liaison officer in Tonga, Dr Yutaro Setoya, was “channelling communication between UN agencies and the Tongan government”.

“With international phone lines and Internet connectivity still down, Dr Setoya’s satellite phone is one of the few ways to get information,” it said.

The officer has “literally been standing outside from dawn until long into the night for the past few days to ensure that the phone can reach the satellite signal,” said WHO’s Health Cluster Coordinator for the Pacific, Mr Sean Casey.

The UN health agency said around 100 houses had been damaged, with 50 destroyed on Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu.

Around 2cm of ash and dust had fallen on Tongatapu, it said on Twitter, “raising concerns of air pollution and potential contamination of food & water supplies.”

“The gov’t has advised the public to remain indoors, use masks if going out & to drink bottled water due to the ashfall”, the WHO tweeted.

Satellite images released by Maxar Technologies on Tuesday showed that where most of the volcanic structure stood above sea level a few days ago, there is now just open sea.

Only two relatively small volcanic islands were still visible above sea level after the eruption.

‘Distress beacon’

New Zealand released aerial images taken from a surveillance flight the previous day, revealing a tree-lined coast transformed from green to grey by the volcanic fallout.

Wrecked buildings were visible on the foreshore alongside others that appeared intact.

Aerial view of O'ua Island in Tonga after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive undersea volcanic eruption. PHOTO: REUTERS

Volcanic ash blanketed island fields, images from an Australian Defence Force P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft showed.

Shipping containers had been knocked over like dominoes at a port on the main island.

Australia’s HMAS Adelaide and New Zealand’s HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa were ordered to be ready for a possible aid request from Tonga, which lies three-five days’ sailing away.

The Red Cross said it was sending 2,516 water containers.

France, which has territories in the South Pacific, pledged to help the people of Tonga’s “most urgent needs”.

The UN said a signal had been detected from a distress beacon on a low-lying island, Mango.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said surveillance flights had confirmed “substantial property damage” on Mango, home to some 30 people, and another island, Fonoi.

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'Cling on to a tree'

Images released by the United Nations Satellite Centre showed the impact of the disaster on the island of Nomuka, one of the closest to the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano.

The satellite centre said, of 104 structures analysed in the cloud-free area, 41 structures were damaged.

Tonga’s airport was working to remove volcanic ash from the capital’s runway. Australia said the ash must be cleared before it can land a C-130 military plane with aid.

One of the two confirmed dead was Angela Glover, a 50-year-old who ran a stray animals charity and was reported missing by her husband after the tsunami hit.

The main runway of the Fua'amotu International Airport partially blocked due to volcanic ash from the volcanic eruption in Tonga. PHOTO: REUTERS

“Earlier today my family was sadly informed that the body of my sister Angela has been found,” her brother Nick Eleini said after being given the news by the husband, Mr James Glover.

“James was able to cling on to a tree for quite a long time, but Angela was unable to do so and was washed away with the dogs,” he told The Guardian newspaper.

No details were released about the other death.

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano before its main eruption on Jan 6, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

'Cable has been cut'

Even when relief efforts get under way, they may be complicated by Covid-19 entry restrictions.

Saturday’s eruption – one of the largest in decades – was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggering a tsunami that flooded Pacific coastlines from Japan to the United States.

In Peru, authorities sealed off three beaches Monday after they were hit by an oil spill blamed on freak waves caused by the eruption.

The blast severed an undersea communications cable between Tonga and Fiji that operators said would take up to two weeks to repair.

“We’re getting sketchy information, but it looks like the cable has been cut,” Southern Cross Cable Network’s networks director Dean Veverka told AFP.

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