(ORDO NEWS) — A massive volcanic eruption and tsunami near Tonga have caused an “unprecedented catastrophe,” the leader of the Pacific nation said on Tuesday, while New Zealand warned of further eruptions that could complicate the delivery of aid to outlying islands where communications have been disrupted.
In its first official release since Saturday’s Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Hapai underwater volcano eruption, the Tongan government on Tuesday confirmed the deaths of three people and injured several others, and outlined the extent of the destruction in communities.
Tongan Prime Minister Xiaosi Sovaleni said that all the houses on Mango Island, where 36 people live, were destroyed. Only two houses remain on Fonoifua Island, while Nomuka Island, home to 239 people, has seen extensive damage, he said.
“An unprecedented catastrophe has hit Tonga,” Sovaleni said, adding that a “volcanic fungus plume” has spread to all of the country’s 170 islands, of which 36 are inhabited, and has affected the entire population of more than 100,000 people.
According to experts, the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Hapai volcano was probably the largest volcanic event recorded since the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.
On Tuesday, New Zealand’s Foreign Office warned of the possibility of further volcanic eruptions, posing a tsunami risk.
The estimate was based on modeling by GNS Science, the New Zealand Geological Research Institute, the ministry said. “The most likely scenario is continued eruptions over the next few days or weeks, with continued tsunami risk for Tonga and New Zealand,” the statement said.
Saturday’s eruption triggered tsunami waves up to 49 feet high (15 meters) that hit the west coast of the main island of Tonga, Tongatapu, as well as the islands of Eua and Haapi.
The UN spokesman said that according to the results of the initial assessment carried out by the authorities of Tonga, 100 houses were damaged and 50 destroyed on Tongatapu, the main island of the country, where the majority of the population lives. There are no evacuation centers on the main island, and the displaced mostly live with distant relatives.
On the island of Eua, 89 people are in evacuation centers, a spokesman said, adding that information from the outer islands remains scarce.
The first details of the destruction emerged Tuesday after Tonga’s Pacific neighbors Australia and New Zealand made reconnaissance flights to the archipelago – a three to five hour journey.
The photographs show entire island communities that were once lush and green but are now covered in a thick layer of gray ash. Many houses are damaged or completely destroyed.
Widespread stagnant pools of salt water combined with volcanic ash are polluting drinking water sources, according to the Red Cross.
Delivery of aid was hampered by ash covering the runway of Tonga Fuamotu International Airport, forcing New Zealand to send two Navy ships to assist in the recovery, but they would not arrive until Friday.
Yutaro Setoya, WHO official responsible for liaison with Tonga. Yutaro Setoya, who is in charge of the WHO office in Tonga, said he thought first aid could arrive on Thursday.
He also described the conditions after the disaster.
“After the eruption, at first there was a sound like rain on the roof, but it wasn’t really rain. It was small granules falling from the sky,” Setoya told CNN on Wednesday. The pellets were followed by very fine ash, which by the time Tong awoke the next day resembled “two centimeters thick gray snow”.
While clean-up work is underway, rescuers rush to deliver safe drinking water to the island nation as it struggles with water shortages.
“Ensuring access to safe drinking water is a top urgent priority,” said Cathy Greenwood, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Pacific delegation, pointing to the growing risk of diarrhea and diseases such as cholera.
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