Tonga tsunami: Australia and New Zealand send planes to assess damage

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Australia and New Zealand have sent surveillance flights to Tonga to assess the damage caused by a volcano eruption that triggered a tsunami and covered the archipelago with ash.

The eruption affected key underwater cables and has cut off communication with the Pacific nation, meaning information about the impact has been scarce. Up to 80,000 people could be affected by the damage, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has said.

A thick blanket of ash had been forced into the sky by the volcanic eruption but on Monday flights from New Zealand and Australia were finally able to depart.

Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said initial reports suggested no mass casualties from Saturday’s eruption and tsunami, but added that the police had reported significant property damage with “houses thrown around”.

He tweeted a photo of Australia’s P-8 surveillance flight departing for Tonga on Monday morning to assess the situation on the ground, adding: “Australia stands ready to provide every possible support to the people of Tonga following the devastating tsunami.”

The New Zealand Defence Force also tweeted than one of its aircraft had left to “assist in an initial impact assessment of the area and low-lying islands.”

New Zealand’s acting high commissioner in Tonga, Peter Lund, said that the island nation looked “like a moonscape” because of the layer of volcanic ash that had settled on the ground. The dust has reportedly been contaminating water supplies.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, said the surveillance flights were expected to return on Monday evening. He also asked for patience as Tonga decides its aid priorities and shared his concerns that deliveries could spread Covid to the islands, which are Covid-free.

“We don’t want to bring in another wave – a tsunami of Covid-19. When people see such a huge explosion they want to help,” he said.

Speaking about the ash posing a health concern, he said: “Most people are not aware the ash is toxic and bad for them to breathe and they have to wear a mask.” He added that any aid delivered to Tonga would need to be quarantined and it was likely that no foreign personnel would be allowed to disembark their aircraft.

The eruption at the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai off Tonga is captured in this screen grab obtained from a social media video (via Reuters)
The eruption at the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai off Tonga is captured in this screen grab obtained from a social media video (via Reuters)

International communication has been severely hampered by damage to an undersea cable, which could take more than a week to restore. Tonga’s cabinet has been meeting to decide what help was most urgently needed.

On Monday, a body was found in the search for British woman Angela Glover who had gone missing after she was reportedly washed away by a wave. Her husband James managed to hold onto a tree but his wife, who runs a doge rescue shelter, and their dogs were swept away, broadcaster TVNZ reported.

Angela’s brother, Nick Eleini, said that “this terrible accident came about as they tried to rescue their dogs”. He described his sister as “beautiful” and “absolutely a ray of sunshine”.

“She would walk into the room and just lighten the room up and she loved her life. Both when she was working in London and when she achieved her life dream of going to work in the South Pacific. She always wanted to swim with whales and that was really what drove her to Tonga,” he added. “We are so proud of her achievements.”

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.

Early data suggests the eruption was the biggest blast since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines 30 years ago, New Zealand-based volcanologist Shane Cronin told Radio New Zealand.

“This is an eruption best witnessed from space,” Mr Cronin said.

Additional reporting by agencies

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