Auxiliary flights arrive for the first time since the outbreak: NPR

In this photo provided by the Australian Defense Forces, Tongan Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu, on the right, and Australian High Commissioner to Tonga, Rachael Moore, see the arrival of the first Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft at Fua’ amotu International Airport near Nukuʻalofa, Tonga, Thursday, January 20, 2022.

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In this photo provided by the Australian Defense Forces, Tongan Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu, on the right, and Australian High Commissioner to Tonga, Rachael Moore, see the arrival of the first Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft at Fua’ amotu International Airport near Nukuʻalofa, Tonga, Thursday, January 20, 2022.

HOGP / AP

BANGKOK – When the massive submarine Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on Saturday, Tongans from around the world watched as their relatives livestreamed images of billowing clouds of ash, gas and steam rising from the depths.

So dark.

The eruption cut off Tonga’s single fiber optic cable, leaving the entire Pacific archipelago offline and unable to communicate with the rest of the world – leaving their loved ones afraid of what might have happened.

“It was absolutely insane,” said Koniseti Liutai, a Tongan living in Australia.

“We talked to family and relatives because they excitedly showed us the activities of the volcano, then we heard the explosion and the big bang, and everything got dark,” he said. “Then the next information we got was the tsunami alert and then the tsunami that hit; we all feared the absolute worst.”

It wasn’t just family and friends who couldn’t get through. Huge ash clouds made backup communication via satellite phone virtually impossible, and world leaders were not even able to get in touch with their Tongan counterparts to see what help they needed.

As the ashes disappeared, satellite communications improved, and Tonga’s telecom operator, Digicel, said it had been able to restore international call services to some areas late Wednesday.

However, it warned that due to the high number of calls and the limited capacity of its satellite connection, people may have to repeatedly try to get through – something experienced by Liutai, who is vice president of the Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce.

“My first direct information was this morning,” he said Thursday. “My daughter came after 100 phone calls during the day and through the night to my aunts, my mother’s sisters, and we were in tears of joy – it was three in the morning, but for us it was like the middle of the day; we were so pumped and so happy. “

So far, three people have been confirmed killed after the volcanic eruption 64 kilometers north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, and the tsunami that followed. According to the Red Cross and official reports, several small settlements on remote islands were wiped out by the map, necessitating the evacuation of several hundred inhabitants.

With the resumption of some communications, more images of the devastation have begun to emerge, showing the once lush islands that were charred by a thick coating of volcanic dust.

Coastlines are littered with rubbish while people work to clean streets and footbridges.

The 2-centimeter (0.78-inch) layer of ash that rendered the runway at Fua’amotu International Airport unusable has now been cleared, and the first flights of fresh water and other aid arrived on Thursday.

In this photo taken from video, Vice President of Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce Koniseti Liutai unpacks emergency donations to Tonga from a vehicle on Wednesday, January 19, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. During an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, January 20, 2022,

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In this photo taken from video, Vice President of Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce Koniseti Liutai unpacks emergency donations to Tonga from a vehicle on Wednesday, January 19, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. During an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, January 20, 2022,

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A repair ship is being sent from Papua New Guinea to work on submarine cable, but it will take some time to get to Tonga, and the responsible company estimates that it may take longer than a month to repair the line.

Given that the cable runs right through the volcanic zone, any new volcanic activity can completely destroy even that timeline.

For Liutai, who runs a business in Tonga, regular visits had allowed him to stay in close contact in the past, but with the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions, he has come to rely on video calls like many other Tongans living abroad.

With that opportunity now cut off, at least in the near future, he hopes at least that there will soon be better telephone connections so that the 106,000 residents of Tonga can better reach the outside world to tell their friends and family what’s going on.

“It’s something we’ve become so used to talking to each other and sharing information on easy social media,” the 52-year-old said. “But when something scary has happened and one fears the worst, and even the government statement was general without information, we were all nervous wrecks.”

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