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3 dead, many homes destroyed — but Tonga escapes worst-case volcano eruption aftermath

Despite sitting almost on top of the volcano that erupted so violently on Saturday, the Pacific nation of Tonga appears to have avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.

'We are not seeing the catastrophic effect we thought might happen,' says aid official

New Tonga images reveal extent of damage from volcanic eruption

4 months ago
Duration 3:42
Freelance reporter Stephanie Skenderis in Melbourne, Australia, says new images from Australian and New Zealand defence forces show widespread damage to parts of Tonga after a massive volcanic eruption.

The blast from the volcano could be heard in Alaska, and the waves crossed the ocean to cause an oil spill and two drownings in Peru. The startling satellite images resembled a massive nuclear explosion.

And yet, despite sitting almost on top of the volcano that erupted so violently on Saturday, the Pacific nation of Tonga appears to have avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.

In its first update since the eruption, the government said Tuesday it has confirmed three deaths — two local residents and a British woman.

Concerns remain over the fate of people on two hard-hit smaller islands, where most houses were destroyed, it said.

Communications have been down everywhere, making assessments more difficult.

But on Tonga's main island of Tongatapu, perhaps the biggest problem is the ash that has transformed it into a gray moonscape, contaminating the rainwater that people rely on to drink.

New Zealand's military is sending fresh water and other much-needed supplies, but said Tuesday the ash covering Tonga's main runway will delay the flight at least another day.

On Tongatapu, at least, life is slowly returning to normal.

The tsunami that swept over coastal areas after the eruption was frightening for many but rose only about 80 centimetres, allowing most to escape.

"We did hold grave fears, given the magnitude of what we saw in that unprecedented blast," said Katie Greenwood, the head of delegation in the Pacific for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

A combination of satellite images shows homes and buildings before the main eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on December 29, 2021, tops, and the same area on Tuesday in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

"Fortunately, in those major population centres we are not seeing the catastrophic effect we thought might happen, and that's very good news."

Greenwood, who is based in Fiji and has been talking with people in Tonga by satellite phone, said an estimated 50 homes were destroyed on Tongatapu but that nobody needed to use emergency shelters.

She said about 90 people on the nearby island of 'Eua were using shelters.

'Significant infrastructural damage'

UN humanitarian officials and Tonga's government has reported "significant infrastructural damage" around Tongatapu.

"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," UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

New Zealand's High Commission in Tonga also reported significant damage along the western coast of Tongatapu, including to resorts and the waterfront area.

A combination of satellite images shows the main port facilities in Nuku'alofa before the eruption on December 29, 2021, top, and the same area on Tuesday. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

Like other island nations in the Pacific, Tonga is regularly exposed to the extremes of nature, whether it be cyclones or earthquakes, making people more resilient to the challenges they bring.

Indeed, Greenwood said Tonga does not want an influx of aid workers following the eruption.

Tonga is one of the few remaining places in the world that has managed to avoid any outbreaks of the coronavirus, and officials fear that if outsiders bring in the virus it could create a much bigger disaster than the one they're already facing.

A satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano before its main eruption, in Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai, Tonga, on April 10, 2021, and afterward on Jan. 6, 2022. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

Another worry, said Greenwood, is that the volcano could erupt again. She said there is currently no working equipment around it which could help predict such an event.

Satellite images captured the spectacular eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific. The volcano is located about 64 kilometres north of Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa.

Two people drowned in Peru, which also reported the oil spill after waves moved a ship that was transferring oil at a refinery.

In Tonga, British woman Angela Glover, 50, was one of those who died after being swept away by a wave, her family said. 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."

Tonga's government said a 65-year-old woman on Mango island and a 49-year-old man from Nomuka island had also died, while a number of other people had suffered injuries.

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