Till a few weeks ago, few knew where Tonga is. A remote Pacific island close to New Zealand, it has today suffered a double whammy. Notably a tsunami, that has struck 17 years after the eruption in the Indian Ocean, and the simultaneous eruption of a volcano.
Rescue teams have been sent to some of the outlying islands, including one where all the houses were destroyed and another where just two homes remain. There have been three deaths in the disaster ~ ~ two Tonga nationals and a woman from Britain.
Aid efforts have been hampered by ash continuing to fall from the volcano. Volunteers have been sweeping the runway of the main airport to allow planes bringing drinking water and other supplies to land. On Wednesday morning, a UN representative for the region said that while clearing the ash had proven more difficult than expected, good progress had been made and it was hoped that flights might soon resume.
“We thought that it would be operational, but it hasn’t been fully cleared yet because more ash has been falling,” Jonathan Veitch told reporters. He praised the quick response of New Zealand and Australia in working to dispatch aid via ships and described it as a “very challenging” situation. Communications with the island chain have been disrupted after the single underwater cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world was severed in the eruption on Saturday.
Many Tongans abroad have since been waiting to hear news from loved ones. While there have been warnings over the danger of volcanic ash, scientists are yet to explain to a world grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, the ferocity of the explosion. Tonga’s government said on Tuesday that the internet was down, but that some local phone services were available, and work was under way to restore full communications.
The statement also said that a 65-year-old woman, a 49-year-old man and a British woman named Angela Glover were killed in the tsunami. Dozens of houses on the main island of Tongatapu were also damaged. While evacuation from the worsthit islands is under way, water supplies have been “seriously affected” by the volcanic ash. Flights have been temporarily halted and sea transport routes are disrupted.
The United Nations has pledged to maintain Tonga’s Covid-free status when aid starts arriving. Officials have expressed concern that deliveries could spread Covid, with the country only recording its first case in October. The UN said it was not clear if personnel could be sent to assist, but that supplies like water and food could be delivered as the main island’s port remained viable.
There have been reports of food supplies at shops running low and deliveries have been deemed a priority. Saturday’s volcanic eruption was felt as far away as the United States. In Peru, two people drowned in abnormally high waves while beaches near the capital Lima were closed off following an oil spill. Nature has taken its toll.