(ORDO NEWS) — The three small islands of Tonga have been hit hard by the tsunami, officials and the Red Cross said Wednesday, as a broader picture of devastation caused by an undersea volcano eruption near the Pacific archipelago begins to emerge.
Communications across Tonga were cut off after the volcanic eruption on Saturday, but on Wednesday the ship reached the outlying islands of Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua and reported that few houses were left after the settlements were hit by 15-meter-high waves, said Cathy Greenwood, head an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Pacific delegation with two people on board to help assess the damage.
“Overnight there was some very sad news about three islands that we were really worried about – they all suffered from the devastating effects of the oncoming waves,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press, while in Fiji. “Most of the buildings and dwellings on these islands were completely destroyed.”
It is not yet clear what kind of help Tonga needs and what kind of help it wants from the international community, and everything is complicated by the fact that the country is concerned about the possible spread of the COVID-19 virus, which it effectively keeps outside its borders, with the exception of one case reported by a traveler from New Zealand in October.
As a precaution, Tonga is looking to “near-touchless disaster relief,” Greenwood said, acknowledging that this would complicate efforts but understandably so in a pandemic.
“They really don’t want to trade one disaster for another,” she said.
About 60 percent of Tonga’s 106,000 residents have already received two doses of the COVID vaccine, and nearly 70 percent have received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data.
Anticipating the needs of the country, New Zealand has already sent two ships. One is carrying 250,000 liters of water and a desalination plant capable of producing another 70,000 liters a day, while the other is carrying a team of surveyors and divers who will help assess damage to shipping channels, ports and marina infrastructure.
They are expected to take three to four days to arrive, although one estimate is that they could be there as early as Friday, said Pini Henare, New Zealand’s defense minister.
“We don’t know what the sea lanes look like and so we certainly want to proceed with some caution as we approach the Tongan Islands,” he said.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaya Mahuta said teams en route would also be ready to assist, if needed, in the evacuation of some 150 people living on the devastated outlying islands.
“We are ready to provide assistance where it will be useful to the government of Tonga and where they are satisfied with the COVID protocols,” she said.
Australia is also preparing to send aid by air and ship, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he expected to speak with his counterpart in Tonga later Wednesday to better understand what is needed.
“Our defense forces have alerted their operations and are deploying as needed and as directed,” he said. “Therefore, we deeply sympathize with our family in Tonga.”
The volcano covered the main island with a two-centimeter layer of ash that destroyed the 2.6-kilometer runway of Fuamotu International Airport.
Volunteers were working on ash sweeping to clear the way for aid planes to land, and it was hoped that the runway would be ready as early as Thursday.
Mahuta said the runway was not damaged by ash, but they wouldn’t know for sure until everything was cleared.
A New Zealand reconnaissance aircraft has already circled the affected islands and provided data to the government of Tonga.
Communications were severely limited as the only submarine fiber optic cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world was likely cut off during the eruption. The company that owns the cable said repairs could take weeks.
Satellite imagery captured the spectacular eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom over the South Pacific Ocean. The volcano is located about 64 kilometers north of the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa.
Due to the amount of ash in the air, satellite communications have been sporadic but are improving now, Greenwood said.
So far, the country appears to have avoided the widespread destruction that many initially feared.
On Tuesday, the government said it had confirmed the deaths of three people – two locals and one British woman – although it warned the death toll would rise as more reports came in from outlying areas.
On Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, perhaps the biggest problem is ash, which has turned it into a gray lunar landscape, polluting the rainwater people normally use for drinking.
Greenwood said people have been warned ahead of time to conserve their water supplies, and that clean drinking water remains a major need.
“Water is definitely, 100 percent, the top priority at the moment, along with housing needs,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Tonga Red Cross, which employs about 20 people and 100 trained volunteers, is already distributing shelter kits and other supplies, she said.
In Sydney, Deputy President of the Tonga-Australia Chamber of Commerce, Koniseti Lutai, said his organization is helping members of the local Tongan community get free containers to send aid to their relatives back home.
In particular, he said that they are trying to meet the specific needs they have identified – the needs of the elderly and the disabled.
“We know that the government of Tonga, Australia, New Zealand and other countries are dealing with food and water issues,” he said. “We’re trying to be a little more specific about family needs.”
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