Friday, May 27

Tonga volcano eruption: three smaller islands severely damaged, 80 percent of population affected

Three of Tonga’s smaller islands were severely damaged by tsunami waves as a larger picture of the destruction wrought by an underwater volcano eruption near the Pacific archipelago nation begins to emerge.

UN humanitarian officials report that some 84,000 people, more than 80 percent of Tonga’s population, have been affected by the volcano’s eruption, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said, citing three deaths, injuries, loss of houses and contaminated water.

Communications have been disrupted in Tonga since Saturday’s eruption, but a ship reached the outlying islands of Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua on Wednesday and reported few houses left standing after settlements were hit by 15-meter waves. height.

“Very unfortunate information has come to light overnight about the three islands that we were really concerned about – they have all suffered devastating consequences as a result of these incoming waves,” said Katie Greenwood, head of the Red Cross regional delegation. , who had two people on board the ship to help assess the damage.

“Most of the structures and homes on those islands have been completely destroyed.”

“Apparently all houses have been destroyed on Mango Island and only two houses remain on Fonoifua Island, with extensive damage reported in Nomuka,” Dujarric said.

He said evacuations are underway for people on the islands.

He said that the most pressing humanitarian needs are clean water, food and non-food items, and the main priorities are to restore communication services, including international calls and the Internet.

“The cleaning of the international airport continues and it is expected to be operational on Thursday,” Dujarric said.

As for the port, it is understood that ships will be able to dock on the main island of Tongatapu.

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Tonga has yet to make its needs clear to the international community, and the country’s concern about the possible spread of COVID-19 is further complicating matters.

The archipelago nation has effectively stayed outside its borders, except for one reported case in a traveler from New Zealand in October.

Tonga expects “nearly contactless disaster relief” as a precaution, Greenwood said, acknowledging that this would complicate efforts, but is also understandable in the midst of the pandemic.

“They really don’t want to trade one disaster for another,” he said.

Some 60 percent of Tonga’s 106,000 people have already received two doses of a COVID vaccine, and nearly 70 percent have received at least one dose.

More humanitarian teams en route as communications continue to be cut

Anticipating the country’s needs, New Zealand has already sent two ships.

One carries 250,000 liters of water and a desalination plant with the capacity to produce an additional 70,000 liters per day, and another brings an inspection and diving team to help assess damage to shipping channels, ports, and marine infrastructure. springs.

They are expected to take three to four days to arrive, although it is estimated that they could be there by Friday, said Peeni Henare, New Zealand’s defense minister.

“We don’t know what the shipping lanes are like and of course we want to proceed with a little bit of caution as we approach the Tongan islands,” he said.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said enroute teams would also be available to help if needed with the evacuation of the estimated 150 people living on the devastated outer islands.

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“We are ready to help where it is helpful to the Tonga government and where they are happy with the COVID protocols,” he said.

Australia is also preparing to send aid by air and ship, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he looked forward to speaking with his counterpart in Tonga later on Wednesday to better understand what is needed.

“Our defense forces have maintained their operation and are deploying as needed and directed,” he said. “So we feel deeply for our family in Tonga.”

The volcano covered the main island with a 2-centimeter layer of ash, rendering the runway at Fua’amotu International Airport useless.

Volunteers have been working to sweep away the ash and clear a path for aid planes to land, but the UN said ash continued to fall on Wednesday.

Mahuta said the runway was not believed to be damaged under the ash, but they would not know for sure until everything was cleared.

A New Zealand reconnaissance plane has already flown over the affected islands and provided the data to the Tongan government.

Communications have been almost completely curtailed because the only fiber-optic undersea cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world was likely severed in the eruption. The company that owns the cable said repairs could take weeks.

Satellite images captured the spectacular eruption of the Hunga-Tonga volcano, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom over the South Pacific.

The volcano is located about 64 kilometers north of the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa.

The large amount of ash in the air has also meant that satellite communications have been sporadic but are improving, Greenwood said.

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So far, it appears that the country has avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.

The government said on Tuesday it confirmed three deaths, two local residents and a British woman, though it warned the death toll is expected to rise as more reports come in from outlying areas.

On Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, perhaps the biggest problem is ash that has turned it into a gray lunar landscape, contaminating the rainwater that people normally rely on for drinking.

Greenwood said people had been warned in advance to protect their water supplies and clean drinking water remained the number one need.

“Water is definitely, 100 percent, the top priority right now, along with shelter needs,” he said.

The Tonga Red Cross, which has about 20 staff and 100 trained volunteers, is already distributing shelter kits and other supplies, he said.

In Sydney, Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce Vice President Koniseti Liutai said his organization was providing free shipping containers for members of the local Tongan community to send aid to relatives back home.

In particular, he said that they were trying to address the specific needs that they had identified, those of the elderly or disabled.

“We know that the government of Tonga, Australia, New Zealand and others are addressing food and water,” he said. “We are trying to be a little more specific for family requirements.”

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