Significant damage keeping much-needed aid from reaching Tonga

Significant damage was reported along the western coast of Tonga's main island and outer islands on Tuesday following a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Plans underway to evacuate people from outer islands hardest-hit by volcanic eruption

A Planet SkySat image shows a plume of smoke rising from the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai on Jan. 7, days before its eruption on Jan. 15, in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga. (Planet Labs PBC/Reuters)

Significant damage was reported along the western coast of Tonga's main island and outer islands on Tuesday following a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, but a closed airport and downed communications are hampering international relief efforts.

The New Zealand High Commission reported the damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where there are many vacation resorts, and the waterfront of the capital Nuku'alofa.

A distress signal was detected in an isolated, low-lying group of islands in the Tonga archipelago following Saturday's massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, the United Nations said, prompting particular concern for its inhabitants.

Initial reports suggested no mass casualties on the main island of Togatapu, but two people were reported missing and the capital Nuku'alofa was badly damaged, as were resorts and homes along the island's western beaches, the U.N. said.

"Further volcanic activity cannot be ruled out," the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in the update on Monday, reporting only minor injuries but emphasizing that formal assessments, especially of the outer islands, had yet to be released with communications badly hit.

The uninhabited volcanic island of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai all but disappeared following the blast, according to satellite images from around 12 hours later. The Pacific archipelago was blanketed in ash and volcanic ash clouds spread to countries thousands of kilometres to the west.

Some before and after images of the island, taken from space:

This satellite photograph of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai Island shows what it looked like from space before the eruption. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-1 Imagery processed by @DEFIS_EU/Reuters)
This satellite photo shows the same view of Hunda-Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai Island after the volcanic eruption. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 Imagery processed by @DEFIS_EU/Reuters)
Another still satellite photo of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, before the volcanic eruption. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-1 Imagery processed by @DEFIS_EU/Reuters)
The same site is seen in this satellite image of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai Island, after the volcanic eruption. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-1 Imagery processed by @DEFIS_EU/ Reuters)

The Ha'atafu Beach Resort on the Hihifo peninsula, 21 kilometres west of Nuku'alofa, was "completely wiped out," the owners said on Facebook.

Australia's Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said Tongan officials were planning to evacuate people from outer islands where "they're doing it very tough, we understand, with many houses being destroyed in the tsunami."

The OCHA said there had been no contact from the Ha'apai group of islands and there was "particular concern" about two small low-lying islands — Fonoi and Mango, where an active distress beacon had been detected.

According to the Tonga government, 36 people live on Mango and 69 on Fonoi.

'Astounding' speed and force

Experts said the volcano, which last erupted in 2014, had been puffing away for about a month before rising magma, superheated to around 1,000 C, met with 20 C sea water, causing an instantaneous and massive explosion.

The unusual "astounding" speed and force of the eruption indicated a greater force at play than simply magma meeting water, scientists said.

Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday to assess damage and Australia's Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said Australian police had visited beaches and reported significant damage with "houses thrown around."

British woman Angela Glover, who ran a dog charity in Tonga, was killed, her brother told British media.

Tonga's deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu'ihalangingie, asked for patience as Tonga's government decides its priorities for aid.

Tonga is concerned about the risk of aid deliveries spreading COVID-19 to the island, which is COVID-free.

"We don't want to bring in another wave — a tsunami of COVID-19," he told Reuters by telephone.

"When people see such a huge explosion they want to help," he went on, but noted that Tonga diplomats were also concerned by some private fundraising efforts and urged the public to wait until a disaster relief fund was announced.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion aircraft prepares to leave Base Auckland for Tonga on Monday to assist after the Pacific island nation was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive undersea volcanic eruption. (New Zealand Defence Force/Handout/Reuters)

Ash poses health problem

Any aid sent to Tonga would need to be quarantined, and it was likely that no foreign personnel would be allowed to disembark aircraft, he said.

The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano triggered a tsunami on the shores of Tonga and cut off phone and internet lines for the entire island.

International communication has been severely hampered by damage to an undersea cable, which could take more than a week to restore, and Australia and New Zealand were assisting with satellite calls, Tu'ihalangingie said.

Telephone networks in Tonga have been restored but ash was posing a major health concern, contaminating drinking water.

"Most people are not aware the ash is toxic and bad for them to breathe and they have to wear a mask," Tu'ihalangingie said.

WATCH | Eruption leads to tsunami alerts: 

Tsunami cuts off communication with Tonga, extent of damage unknown

5 months ago
Duration 2:07
The small nation of Tonga is cut off from most communication after an underwater volcano eruption triggered a tsunami. The country’s isolated location and the lack of communication has made it difficult to assess damage or send aid.

The Red Cross said it was mobilizing its network to respond to what it called the worst volcanic eruption the Pacific has experienced in decades.

Katie Greenwood, the Pacific head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters up to 80,000 people could have been affected by the tsunami.

Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai has erupted regularly over the past few decades but the impact of Saturday's eruption was felt as far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Japan. Two people drowned off a beach in Northern Peru due to high waves caused by the tsunami.

A damaged boat is partially submerged in a marina at Tutukaka, New Zealand, on Sunday, a day after a volcanic eruption in the Pacific Ocean. (Tanya White/Northern Advcate/NZME/The Associated Press)