Wellington A volcano that exploded on the Pacific island nation of Tonga has almost disappeared from view, new images revealed on Tuesday, with parts of the island nation suffocated in gray ash and dust or damaged by a tsunami. Tonga has been virtually cut off from the rest of the world since Saturday’s volcanic eruption – one of the largest recorded in decades.
The volcano erupted about 19 miles into the air, depositing ash, gas and acid rain over a large area of the Pacific Ocean. Three days after the eruption, the outside world was still running on Tuesday to understand the scale of the disaster using uneven satellite phone connections, surveillance flights and satellite images.
The human figure remained largely unknown on Tuesday, but New Zealand said at least two people had been confirmed killed, citing Tongan police. One of them was Angela Glover, a 50-year-old British woman who ran a charity for animal rescue. Her family said her body was found after she was swept away by the tsunami.
Satellite images released by Maxar Technologies on Tuesday showed that where most of the volcanic structure stood above sea level a few days ago, there is now just open sea. Only two relatively small volcanic islands were still visible above sea level after the eruption.
“What we saw above the water that has now been destroyed was only the tip of a volcano that had grown on the edge of the massive underwater volcano,” said volcanologist Heather Handley at Monash University.
New Zealand released aerial photos taken from a surveillance flight the previous day, revealing a triangular coastline transformed from green to gray by the volcanic fallout. Destroyed buildings were visible on the foreshore along with others that seemed intact.
Island fields covered in volcanic ash, showed images from an Australian defense force P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft. Ship containers had been overturned like dominoes in a port on the main island.
Australia’s HMAS Adelaide and New Zealand’s HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa were ordered to be ready for a possible request for assistance from Tonga, which is three to five days away.
With water sources feared to be poisoned by volcanic fallout, the Red Cross said it sent 2,516 water tanks.
France, which has territories in the South Pacific, promised to help meet the people of Tonga’s “most urgent needs.”
The UN said a signal had been detected from an emergency lighthouse on the low-lying island of Mango.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said surveillance flights had confirmed “significant property damage” to Mango, home to about 30 people, and another island, Fonoifua. Later Tuesday, the news agency Reuters quoted Tongan government officials as saying that every single home on Mango had been destroyed and only two remained on Fonoifua. Officials said fresh water supplies across Tonga were contaminated with ash.
The UN agency also reported “extensive damage” to the western beaches of the main island of Tongatapu, “with several resorts and / or houses destroyed and / or badly damaged.”
Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa was shrouded in nearly two inches of volcanic ash and dust, it said. The power had been restored to parts of the capital. Local telephone systems had been restored, but international communication was still difficult as the explosion cut off an underwater communications cable between Tonga and Fiji. Operators said it would take up to two weeks to repair the cable.
The capital’s waterfront, the UN agency said, was “severely damaged with rocks and debris pushed into the country from the tsunami.”
Satellite images released by the UN satellite center showed the impact of the eruption and tsunami on the small island of Nomuka, one of the closest to the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano.
The satellite center said that out of 104 structures analyzed in the cloud-free area visible from space, 41 were identified as damaged.
Tonga Airport was working to remove volcanic ash from the capital’s runway. Australia said the ashes must be cleared before it can land a C-130 military aircraft with assistance.
Even when relief efforts begin, they can be complicated by COVID-19 access restrictions.
Saturday’s eruption was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggers a tsunami which flooded the Pacific coast from Japan to the United States.
The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Oceans, Peter Thomson, told CBS News’ Pamela Falk that the eruption was “a dramatic reminder that we live in the embrace of nature.”
“Our thoughts and sympathies are with the people of Tonga and southeastern Fiji,” Thomson, Fiji’s former UN ambassador, who has spent years warning of the threat posed by climate change to small island nations like his own, told Falk.
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