There are reports of “significant damage” in parts of the Pacific island nation of Tonga following Saturday’s massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, with New Zealand and Australia preparing to send humanitarian assistance amid limited international communications.
Tongan police told the New Zealand High Commission the confirmed death toll stood at two, but the communications blackout meant the true extent of casualties was not clear. Tonga is home to more than 100,000 people who live on more than 30 inhabited islands.
New Zealand said a reconnaissance flight on Monday had shown heavy ash covering the runway of the main airport in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, which would need to be cleared before aid flights could start.
The Tongan government has said that work is proceeding by hand and that it could be completed by Wednesday.
“New Zealand is ready to assist Tonga,” New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a joint statement with Defence Minister Peeni Henare, adding that imagery from the flight had also been shared with the authorities in Tonga “to aid in decisions about what support is most needed”.
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an undersea volcano, erupted on Saturday triggering tsunami warnings across the Pacific. The eruption was the biggest since Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, with the cataclysmic bang heard in Fiji more than 750km (466 miles) away.
The eruption sent a huge cloud of ash and smoke into the air and ruptured Tonga’s only undersea communication cable, which has hampered efforts to assess the scale of the disaster.
Henare said that given the “challenging” communication situation, New Zealand decided to deploy two Navy ships – loaded with drinking water and other essentials – so they would be ready if the Tongan government requests the assistance.
The vessels, one of them also carrying survey and diving teams and a helicopter, left New Zealand on Tuesday afternoon for the three-day journey. A C-130 Hercules transport plane is also on standby to deliver relief.
“Water is among the highest priorities for Tonga at this stage,” Hanare said. “HMNZS Aotearoa can carry 250,000 litres, and produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant.”
Australia, meanwhile, was preparing a ship for deployment from the east coast city of Brisbane.
The New Zealand High Commission in Tonga said earlier that there was “significant damage” on the western coast of the nation, an area known for being home to several resorts, as well as on the waterfront of the capital, Nuku’alofa.
The Tongan Navy has reported considerable damage in the Ha’apai Islands with the tsunami estimated to be between five and 10 metres (16 and 32 feet) in height and travelling as far as 500 metres (1,640 feet) inland.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said surveillance flights had confirmed “substantial property damage” on the outlying island of Mango, which is home to just over 30 people, and Fonoi, another island with about double the population.
“An active distress beacon had been detected from Mango,” OCHA said in an urgent report.
In a Tuesday update, the New Zealand aid organisation, the Council for International Development, said that power and local mobile phone networks had been restored in Tongatapu although the connection was not yet stable.
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