Despite a huge volcanic eruption, Tonga avoids widespread disaster – The Denver Post

By NICK PERRY

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – The eruption of the volcano could be heard in Alaska, and the waves crossed the ocean, causing an oil spill and two drowning in Peru. The sensational satellite images resembled a massive nuclear explosion.

And yet, despite sitting almost on top of the volcano that erupted so violently last Saturday, the Pacific nation of Tonga seems to have avoided the extensive devastation that many initially feared.

In its first update since the outbreak, the government said on Tuesday it had confirmed three deaths – two local residents and a British woman. There are still concerns about the fate of people on two hard-hit smaller islands where most of the houses were destroyed, it says. Communication has been down everywhere, which has made assessments more difficult.

But on Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, perhaps the biggest problem is the ash that has turned it into a gray lunar landscape that pollutes the rainwater that people depend on to drink. The New Zealand military is sending fresh water and other much-needed supplies, but said on Tuesday that the ash covering Tonga’s main runway would delay the flight for at least another day.

At Tongatapu, at least, life is slowly returning to normal. The tsunami that swept over coastal areas after the eruption was frightening to many, but rose only about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) so most could escape.

“We had serious fears given the scale of what we saw in the unprecedented explosion,” said Katie Greenwood, head of the Pacific Delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Fortunately, we are not seeing in the major population centers the catastrophic effect we thought could happen, and that is very good news.”

Greenwood, which is based in Fiji and has spoken to people in Tonga via satellite phone, said that an estimated 50 homes were destroyed on Tongatapu, but that no one needed to use emergency shelter. She said about 90 people on the nearby island of Eua used shelters.

UN humanitarian officials and the Tongan government have reported “significant infrastructure damage” around Tongatapu.

“There has been no contact from the Ha’apai archipelago and we are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands – Mango and Fonoi – following surveillance flights confirming significant property damage,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

New Zealand’s High Commission in Tonga also reported significant damage along the west coast of Tongatapu, including at resorts and the waterfront.

Like other Pacific island nations, Tonga is regularly exposed to the extremes of nature, whether cyclones or earthquakes, making people more resilient to the challenges they bring.

Greenwood actually said Tonga does not want an influx of relief workers after the outbreak. Tonga is one of the few remaining places in the world that has managed to avoid any outbreak of coronavirus, and officials fear that if outsiders bring in the virus, it could create a much bigger disaster than the one they are already facing.

Another concern, Greenwood said, is that the volcano could erupt again. She said there is currently no work equipment around it that could help predict such an event.

Satellite images captured the spectacular eruption of Hunga Tonga volcano Hunga Ha’apai on Saturday, with a plow of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant sponge over the South Pacific. The volcano is located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.

Two people drowned in Peru, who also reported the oil spill after waves moved a ship that was transferring oil to a refinery.

In Tonga, British woman Angela Glover, 50, was one of those killed after being swept away by a wave, her family said.

Nick Eleini said his sister’s body had been found and that her husband survived. “I understand that this terrible accident happened while they were trying to save their dogs,” Eleini told Sky News. He said it had been his sister’s dream to live in the South Pacific, and “she loved her life there.”

The New Zealand military said it hoped the airport in Tonga would open either Wednesday or Thursday. The military said it had considered an airdrop, but that it was “not the preference of the Tongan authorities.”

New Zealand also sent a naval ship to Tonga on Tuesday, with another scheduled to leave later in the day, promising an initial $ 1 million ($ 680,000) for recovery.

Australia sent a naval ship from Sydney to Brisbane to prepare for a support mission if needed.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday that China is preparing to send drinking water, food, personal protective equipment and other supplies to Tonga as soon as flights resume.

The UN World Food Program is examining how to bring in relief and more staff and has received a request to restore communication lines in Tonga, home to about 105,000 people, Dujarric said.

Communication with the island nation is limited because the individual underwater fiber optic cable connecting Tonga with the rest of the world was likely interrupted in the eruption. The company that owns the cable said the repairs could take weeks.

Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board of Tonga Cable Ltd., said the cable appeared to have been disconnected shortly after the outbreak. He said the cable is on top and inside the coral reef, which can be sharp.

Fonua said a ship should pull the cable up to assess the damage, and then the crews should repair it. A single break can take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks can take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the underwater volcano to perform the work.

Another submarine cable connecting the islands of Tonga also appeared to have been cut off, Fonua said. However, a local telephone network worked, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud continued to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.

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Associated Press journalist Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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