Volcanic ash delays aid to Tonga as damage occurs

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – Thick ash on a runway at the airport delayed deliveries of aid to the Pacific island of Tonga, where significant damage was reported days after a huge underwater volcanic eruption and tsunami.

The New Zealand military is sending much-needed drinking water and other supplies, but said the ash on the runway will delay the flight by at least a day. A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented previous flights. New Zealand is also sending two naval vessels to Tonga, which will leave on Tuesday, promising a first million New Zealand dollars ($ 680,000) for recovery efforts.

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

Communication with Tonga has been extremely limited, but New Zealand and Australia sent military surveillance flights to assess the damage on Monday.

UN humanitarian officials and the Tongan government “report significant infrastructural damage around Tongatapu,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

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

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

Satellite images captured the spectacular outbreak, with a cloud of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom over the South Pacific. Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into the Tongan coastline, crossing the Pacific Ocean and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California. The eruption set in motion a sonic boom that could be heard as far away as Alaska.

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

New Zealand’s acting High Commissioner for Tonga, Peter Lund, said there were unconfirmed reports of up to three people killed in Tonga so far.

One death has been confirmed by the family: the British woman Angela Glover, 50, who was swept away by a wave.

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 life dream “to live in the South Pacific, and” she loved her life there. “

The eruption of Hunga Tonga volcano Hunga Ha’apai, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted flights to the Pacific Group.

Earth imaging firm Planet Labs PBC had seen the island after a new vent began to erupt in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.

The UN World Food Program is examining how to bring in emergency aid and more staff and has received a request to restore communication lines in Tonga, Dujarric said.

A complicating factor is that Tonga has managed to avoid outbreaks of COVID-19. New Zealand said its military personnel were vaccinated and willing to follow Tonga’s protocols.

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.”

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 and repairs can take weeks.

Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board of Tonga Cable Ltd., said the cable appeared to have been cut off about 10 to 15 minutes 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 still 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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