Homes damaged, communications severed . . .
Last Saturday evening, a large volcano erupted close to the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga, spewing a cloud of volcanic ash some 20 km into the air and causing major tsunamis that devastated parts of the Pacific Island country and caused damage as far away as Peru. Reports have emerged of significant damage to low-lying coastal areas in Tonga, both on the main island of Tongatapu and several less populated and remote islands. Three deaths have been confirmed in the Kingdom. International and domestic communications have been severely compromised as the country’s only undersea communication cable connecting it to the rest of the world via Fiji was severed in the disaster.
Assessing devastation . . .
Tonga’s remoteness has made assessing the damage very difficult in some areas and delayed it in others. Immediately following the eruption, both Australia and New Zealand sent reconnaissance planes to assist with aerial damage assessments. In addition to catastrophic property damage in some areas – especially on some remote islands – a thick layer of volcanic ash has covered much of the country’s main island, contaminating drinking water sources and damaging food crops. The country’s main airport is being cleared of volcanic debris and remains closed, while the main seaport has suffered limited to moderate damage and is also closed.
Responding to disaster . . .
Search and rescue operations began the morning following the eruption, with badly affected communities being evacuated and first responders providing water, food, and tents. International aid agencies have begun planning relief operations. The Tongan government has indicated that repairing the undersea communications cable will be a priority. However, repair work could take weeks to complete, at least in part out of concern for workers conducting repairs in close proximity to an active volcano. Both Australia and New Zealand have pledged an initial $1 million (in their respective currencies) in aid, and New Zealand has sent two navy ships carrying water, relief supplies, and survey and diving teams. Australia has plans to send relief aircraft as soon as the airport in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, reopens.