Australia’s Pacific Minister Zed Seselja says initial reports indicate there are no mass casualties Tonga after a volcano erupted that triggered a tsunami, but Australian police have visited beaches with extensive damage and “houses thrown about”.
Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday to assess the damage after Tonga was isolated from the rest of the world as Saturday’s eruption blanketed the Pacific island in ash.
The flights, along with detailed pictures and video, should be back in Australia and New Zealand on Monday evening.
“We know there is significant damage and we know there is significant damage to resorts,” Seselja said in an interview with Australian radio station, adding that Tonga’s airport appears to be in relatively good shape.
A British woman has been reported missing, he said. The surveillance flights assessed the situation on the outer islands, where communications were completely cut off.
Seselja told ABC TV there were “no reports of mass casualties.”
Tonga’s Deputy Head of Mission to Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, asked for patience while the Tonga government determined its priorities for aid.
Tonga is concerned about the risk of aid shipments spreading Covid to the virus-free island.
“We don’t want to create another wave – a tsunami of Covid-19,” Tu’ihalangingie said by phone. “When people see an explosion that big, they want to help.”
But, he said, Tonga diplomats are concerned about some private fundraising efforts, and he urged the public to wait until a disaster relief fund is announced.
Any relief supplies sent to Tonga would have to be quarantined and it is likely no foreign personnel would be allowed off planes, the diplomat said.
the Eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano triggered a tsunami off the coast of Tonga, disrupting phone and internet lines for the entire island. International communications were severely hampered by damage to an undersea cable that could take more than a week to recover, and Australia and New Zealand helped with satellite calls.
Telephone networks in Tonga were restored, but ash posed a major health problem and contaminated drinking water. “Most people are unaware that the ash is toxic and they have a hard time breathing, and they have to wear a mask,” Tu’ihalangingie said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said boulders and boats had washed ashore on Tongatapu, Tonga’s largest island and home of the capital, about 40 miles south of the volcano.
“When you see some of these waves coming in and peeling away fences and structures, you can see the power of those waves,” she said. “Everyone just wants to note how far-reaching that impact has been…we want to be in Tonga and on the ground as soon as we’re able.”
Ha’atafu Beach Resort on the Hihifo Peninsula, 21 km (13 miles) west of the capital Nuku’alofa, has been “completely wiped out,” the owners said on Facebook.
The family who manages the resort ran for their lives through the bush to escape the tsunami, sources said.
“The entire west coast was completely destroyed along with the village of Kanukupolu,” the resort said.
Britain’s Angela Glover has gone missing after being swept away by a wave as she and husband James, who owns the Happy Sailor Tattoo in Nuku’alofa, went to retrieve their dogs.
The husband managed to cling to a tree but his wife, who runs a dog sanctuary, and their dogs were swept away, New Zealand state broadcaster TVNZ reported.
The Red Cross said it was mobilizing its network to respond to the worst volcanic eruption the Pacific has seen in decades.
Katie Greenwood, the Pacific delegation leader for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said up to 80,000 people could be affected by the tsunami.
Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai has erupted regularly for the past few decades, but the impact of Saturday’s eruption has been felt as far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Japan.
Two people drowned on a beach in northern Peru due to high waves caused by the tsunami.
More than a day after the eruption, countries thousands of kilometers to the west have plumes of volcanic ash overhead, New Zealand meteorologist WeatherWatch said.
Early data suggests the eruption was the largest blast since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines 30 years ago, New Zealand volcanologist Shane Cronin told Radio New Zealand. “This is an eruption best viewed from space,” Cronin said.