The first flights carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga finally arrived on Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left behind by a massive volcanic eruption.
New Zealand and Australia sent military transport planes carrying water containers, temporary shelter kits, generators, hygiene supplies and communication equipment. The Australian plane also had a special sweeper to help keep the runway clear.
The deliveries were delivered without military personnel coming into contact with people at the Tonga airport. That’s because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring the coronavirus. It has had no outbreak of COVID-19 and has reported a single case since the pandemic began.
Rear Admiral James Gilmour, commander of the New Zealand Joint Forces, said Tongan troops had put in a “giant effort” to “clear that runway by hand. And they did it this afternoon.”
Australia said the assistance would help the Tonga government meet community needs and support immediate clean-up efforts.
Japan also said it would send emergency aid, including drinking water and equipment to clean up volcanic ash. Two C-130 Hercules planes and a transport vessel with two CH-47 Chinook helicopters were likely to leave on Thursday, the Defense Ministry said.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters that his ministry “will do everything possible for the people of Tonga affected by the disaster.”
UN humanitarian officials report that some 84,000 people, more than 80% of Tonga’s population, have been affected by the volcano’s eruption, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said, noting three dead, injured, home loss and contaminated water.
Communications with Tonga remain limited after Saturday’s eruption and tsunami apparently severed the only fiber optic cable connecting 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 still work.
One phone company, Digicel, said on Thursday that it had managed to restore the ability to make international calls from some places via a satellite link, but that people would have to be patient due to high demand. He said he hoped to improve his service in the next few days.
A New Zealand Navy patrol boat is also expected to arrive later on Thursday. It carries hydrographic equipment and divers, and also has a helicopter to help with supply deliveries.
Officials said the ship’s first task would be to check shipping channels and the structural integrity of the pier in the capital Nuku’alofa following the eruption and tsunami.
Another New Zealand Navy ship carrying 250,000 liters of water is on its way. The ship can also produce tens of thousands of liters of fresh water each day using a desalination plant.
Three of Tonga’s smaller islands were severely damaged by tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.
The UN’s Dujarric said that “apparently all houses have been destroyed on Mango Island and only two houses remain on Fonoifua Island, with extensive damage reported in Nomuka.” He said evacuations are underway for people on the islands.
According to Tongan census figures, Mango is home to 36 people, Fonoifua is home to 69 people and Nomuka to 239. Most Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, where some 50 houses were destroyed.
Dujarric said the most pressing humanitarian needs are clean water, food and non-food items, and the top priorities are restoring communication services, including international calls and the Internet.
Tonga has so far avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism