Tonga volcano: islands covered in ash as three deaths confirmed

·4 min read

Pictures from New Zealand defence force surveillance flight and UN satellite images show land and trees coated in ash


Some of the first images have emerged from Tonga’s volcano and tsunami-hit islands, after a New Zealand defence force surveillance flight returned from the cut-off country, as three deaths from the disaster have been confirmed in Tonga.

Aerial photography of Nomuka, a small island in the southern part of the Haʻapai group, shows land and trees coated with ash and other damage inflicted by the huge undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami that hit the Pacific nation on Saturday.

Satellite imagery analysed by the UN shows similar scenes in Kolomotu’a, Tongatapu, and Fafaa village, Kolofo’ou: while some buildings remain standing, others appear to have collapsed, and the entire landscape is coated with grey ash.

At Fua’amotu international airport, the runway appears to have been inundated, and is partly covered by either ash or dirt. Other satellite images show that flooding came in several blocks from the coastline.

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai undersea volcano, 40 miles (65km) north of Tonga’s capital, is thought to be the largest volcanic event in 30 years. Initial videos and photographs of the tsunami wave sweeping in were posted on social media, but they were followed by silence, after the main communications cable was damaged. Communications from Tonga have been extremely limited in the days since.

Tongans around the world may be forced to wait weeks for regular contact to resume, after testing confirmed that the cable connecting the islands to the outside world was cut in at least one place.

A spokesperson for Southern Cross Cable, which operates other undersea cable networks across the region, said that testing by Fintel and Tonga Cable on Sunday afternoon “seems to confirm a likely cable break around 37km offshore from Tonga”.

On Tuesday, in its first official update since the eruption, Tonga’s government confirmed three fatalities.

In a statement, the prime minister’s office announced the deaths of a 65-year-old woman on Mango island and a 49-year-old man on Nomuka island, in addition to Angela Glover, a British woman living in Tonga whose body was found on Monday.

The government said the Tongan navy had deployed with health teams and water, food and tents to outlying islands.

The New Zealand foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said on Tuesday the ash could cause problems for getting aid into the country via plane.

Before and after

“Images show ashfall on the Nuku’alofa airport runway that must be cleared before a C-130 Hercules flight with humanitarian assistance can land,” she said.

The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a briefing on Monday there was significant infrastructural damage around the main island of Tongatapu. “We are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands – Mango and Fonoi – following New Zealand and Australian surveillance flights confirming substantial property damage,” they said.

In its Tuesday update, the Tongan government said all the houses were destroyed on Mango island, and only two houses remained on Fonoifua – islands with fewer than 200 residents.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Tuesday.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Tuesday. Photograph: AP

New Zealand has dispatched two naval ships carrying water and other aid supplies. Mahuta said the New Zealand government had allocated a further NZ$500,000 (£293,000) in humanitarian assistance, taking its initial funding total to NZ$1m.

The New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said on Monday contact had not yet been established with many coastal regions beyond the capital, Nuku‘alofa.

“Nuku'alofa is covered in thick plumes of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable,” Ardern said. “We have not yet received news from other coastal areas.”

With communications severely limited, many Tongan diaspora communities are desperately waiting for news from their families.

Buildings

The Royal New Zealand air force Orion aircraft left Auckland on Monday morning, with plans to fly over the Ha’apai group of islands, and then the main island of Tongatapu, to assess damage and see if runways were clear for subsequent planes to land.

The Australian defence force also sent a surveillance plane on Monday, to assess damage to critical infrastructure such as roads, ports and power lines.

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