The Tongan government describes ‘unprecedented disaster’ in its first statement since volcanic eruptions and tsunamis

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Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, said earlier that images taken by the New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) showed “alarming” scenes of a village destroyed on Mango and buildings missing on Atata Island, which is closer to the volcano.

“People are panicking, people are running and getting hurt. Possibly there will be more deaths and we are just praying that this is not the case,” Tu’ihalangingie told Reuters.

Sovaleni’s office said a 65-year-old woman on Mango and a 49-year-old man on Nomuka Island had been killed, in addition to the British citizen whose body was found on Monday. A number of injuries were also reported.

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Tsunami waves reaching up to 15 meters hit the Ha’apia archipelago, where Mango is located, and the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the office said. Residents were relocated to evacuation centers when 56 houses were destroyed or severely damaged on that coast.

Atata and Mango lie between about 50 kilometers and 70 kilometers from the volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean when it erupted with an explosion heard 2,300 kilometers away in New Zealand.

Ash cover

Satellite images from Sunday show that the caldera in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai has collapsed and the island has lost a significant percentage of its original area, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.

Image taken from a New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft showing ash covering the Tongan island of Nomuka.

Source: Getty Images AsiaPac

A rescue operation began Sunday for Atata, which has a population of about 100 people, with an evacuation underway.

“Challenges to sea and air transport remain due to damage caused by the quays and ash covering the runways,” the prime minister’s office said.

A thick layer of ash covers the islands, the aerial photos that New Zealand and Australia had delivered to Tonga showed.

The archipelago’s main Fua’amotu International Airport was not damaged, but the ash had to be manually removed from the runway, with the earliest opening on Wednesday, OCHA said.

In addition to the damage locally, scientists say the eruption could have a long-term impact on coral reefs, coastlines and fishing in the wider region, as well as cause acid rain.

Parts of Peru’s coast were soiled with oil spilled from an emptying ship shaken by waves caused by the eruption, Peruvian Environment Minister Ruben Ramirez said.

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Clean water sources remain a problem and the Tongan government has advised people to drink only bottled water as the sources may be contaminated with ash, waste and the sea, OCHA said.

The Tongan navy has dispatched with health teams and water, food and tents to the Ha’apai Islands, with more help sent on Tuesday, the prime minister’s office said.

The NZDF photos, posted on Facebook and confirmed by Mr Tu’ihalangingie, showed tarpaulins used as shelter on Mango, one of the kingdom’s 176 islands.

Submarine cable

Tonga is expected to issue formal requests for assistance soon, but in the meantime New Zealand said two ships, HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa, had departed with water supplies, investigation teams and a helicopter. UN teams are on standby, OCHA said.

Australian Foreign Secretary Marise Payne said C-130 aircraft from Australia could provide humanitarian aid including water purification kits, while HMAS Adelaide, which would take five days to reach Tonga, was ready to receive engineering and medical teams and helicopter support.

The Prime Minister’s Office said there was limited communication with satellite phones, but some areas remained cut off.

For families waiting for news, the silence was deafening. “The worst fear is always that you will not see the people you love again,” said Seini Taumoepeau, a Tongan-Australian in Sydney who has relatives across the islands.

A composite satellite image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai before and after its eruption.


The international provider of mobile phone network Digicel has set up a temporary system on the main island using the University of South Pacific dish, New Zealand said.

Subcom, a US-based private company that has contracted to repair submarine cables in the Asia-Pacific, said it was working with Tonga Cable Ltd to repair the connection that runs from Tonga to Fiji.

Samiuela Fonua, chairman of Tonga Cable, said there were two cuts in the submarine cable that would not be fixed until volcanic activity ceased, giving repair personnel access.

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