Volcanic Ash Delays Aid to Tonga as Damage Reports Emerge
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Thick ash on an airport runway was delaying aid deliveries to the Pacific island nation of Tonga, where significant damage was being reported days after a huge undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami.
New Zealand’s military is sending much-needed drinking water and other supplies, but said the ash on the runway will delay the flight at least a day. A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented earlier flights. Tonga will also be visited by two Navy ships from New Zealand. The navy ships are scheduled to leave Tuesday. New Zealand has pledged a total of 1,000,000 New Zealand Dollars ($680,000) towards recovery efforts.
Communication with Tonga has been very limited. However, New Zealand and Australia have sent surveillance aircraft to monitor the situation on Monday.
U.N. humanitarian officials and Tonga’s government “report significant infrastructural damage around Tongatapu,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“There has been no contact from the Ha’apai Group of islands, and we are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands — Mango and Fonoi — following surveillance flights confirming substantial property damage,” Dujarric said.
New Zealand’s High Commission in Tonga also reported “significant damage” along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, including to resorts and along the waterfront area.
The spectacular satellite images were captured by Satellite Images eruptionA plume of steam, ash and gas rose like a huge mushroom high above the South Pacific. Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into Tonga’s shoreline, and crossed the Pacific, causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California. It was heard in Alaska as well as New Zealand as a loud sonic boom.
Peru also reports two deaths from oil-related accidents.
New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner for Tonga, Peter Lund, said there were unconfirmed reports of up to three fatalities on Tonga so far.
Families have confirmed one death: Angela Glover from Britain, 50, was killed when she was taken by the waves.
Nick Eleini said his sister’s body had been found and that her husband survived. “I understand that this terrible accident came about as they tried to rescue their dogs,” Eleini told Sky News. He said it had been his sister’s life dream” to live in the South Pacific and “she loved her life there.”
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. The eruptions of late 2014 and early 2015. created an island small enough to disrupt air travel from the Pacific archipelago.
Planet Labs PBC, an earth imaging company, had observed the island since a new eruption began in December. Satellite images revealed how dramatically the volcano had changed the landscape, creating an island just off Tonga.
Dujarric stated that the U.N. World Food Program has been looking into how it can bring in more relief supplies and staff.
Tonga’s ability to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks is a complicating factor. New Zealand said its military staff were vaccinated and willing to follow Tonga’s protocols.
New Zealand’s military said it hoped the airfield in Tonga would be opened either Wednesday or Thursday. The military said it had considered an airdrop but that was “not the preference of the Tongan authorities.”
Communication with Tonga is difficult because of the damage to an underwater fibre-optic cable linking Tonga to other parts of the globe. Repairs could take several weeks depending on the company who owns and maintains the cable.
Samiuela Fonua who is chair of Tonga Cable Ltd.’s board, stated that the cable seemed to have broken about 10-15 minutes after the eruption. The cable is located atop coral reef and can become sharp.
Fonua explained that crews need to inspect the damaged cable and pull it up on a ship to evaluate the situation. Fonua said that one break can be repaired in a matter of days, and multiple breaks may take as long as three weeks. It was not yet clear when it would be safe to take a vessel near an undersea volcano for the repair work.
Fonua stated that a second underwater cable connecting Tonga’s islands was also cut. Fonua said that Tongans could still call one another via a local telephone network. He said that the cloud of ash was still affecting satellite telephone calls from abroad.
Jill Lawless from the Associated Press in London contributed to this article.