WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The first flights carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga were finally able to leave Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left by a huge volcanic eruption.
A C-130 Hercules military transport plane left New Zealand carrying water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene supplies and communications equipment, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said.
Australia sent another C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, and another one to follow it. Both were carrying humanitarian aid. They were due all to land in Tonga Thursday afternoon.
The deliveries will be done with no contact because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus. The country hasn’t reported any COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.
“The aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” Defense Minister Peeni Henare said.
U.N. humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people — more than 80% of Tonga’s population — have been impacted by the volcano’s eruption, U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said, pointing to three deaths, injuries, loss of homes and polluted water.
Communications with Tonga remain limited after Saturday’s eruption and tsunami appeared to have broken the single fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga with the rest of the world. That means most people haven’t been able to use the internet or make phone calls abroad, although some local phone networks are still working.
Another navy patrol boat from New Zealand, expected to arrive on Thursday evening. It will be equipped with divers and hydrographic equipment. A helicopter can also help in delivering supplies.
Officials said the ship’s first task would be to check shipping channels and the structural integrity of the wharf in the capital, Nuku’alofa, following the eruption and tsunami.
New Zealand is shipping another navy vessel carrying 250,000 liters (6,000 gallons of water) to the country. The vessel can also generate tens to thousands of liters daily using a desalination facility.
Three of Tonga’s smaller islands suffered serious damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.
The U.N.’s Dujarric said “all houses have apparently been destroyed on the island of Mango and only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka.” He said evacuations are underway for people from the islands.
Tongan census data show that Mango has 36 inhabitants, Fonoifua has 69, Nomuka, 229, and Fonoifua, 169. Tongans mainly live on Tongatapu’s main island, which has about 50 houses that were demolished.
Dujarric noted that humanitarian emergencies are most urgent. He said safe water, food, and non-food items are the main priorities. Reestablishing communication services for international calls is also a top priority.
Tonga is currently avoiding the devastation widespread that some initially fear.
Edith M. Lederer, Associated Press reporter at the United Nations, contributed to this article.