Tonga cut off by volcanic eruption, fears for coastal cities mount – Archyde

It has been two days since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted, blanketing Tonga in a film of ash, triggering a Pacific tsunami and sending shock waves that engulfed the entire earth.

This handout photo, taken and released by the Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Defense Force, shows a Royal Australian Air Force (R) P-8 Poseidon aircraft preparing to take off from the RAAF base Amberley, Queensland, to support the Government of Tonga following the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga volcano – Hunga-Haa’pai on 15 January 2022. Credit: Australian Defense Force/AFP

SYDNEY — The Pacific island nation of Tonga was virtually cut off from the rest of the world on Monday after a massive volcanic explosion crippled communications and halted emergency relief efforts.

It has been two days since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted, blanketing Tonga in a film of ash, triggering a Pacific tsunami and sending shock waves that engulfed the entire earth.

But with phone lines still down and an underwater internet cable down — and not scheduled to be repaired for weeks — the true toll of the dual eruptive-tsunami disaster is yet to be known.

Only fragments of information have been filtered out via a handful of satellite phones on the islands, which are home to just over 100,000 people.

Tonga’s concerned neighbors are still struggling to grasp the extent of the damage, which New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern said was classified as “substantial”.

Both Wellington and Canberra deployed reconnaissance planes on Monday to get a feel for the damage from the air.

And both have C-130 military transport aircraft on standby to drop emergency supplies or to land when runways are deemed operational and ash plumes permitting.

According to initial reports, areas on the west coast could have been badly hit.

Australia’s Minister for International Development, Zed Seselja, said a small contingent of Australian police based in Tonga had given a “rather worrying” initial assessment.

They were “able to assess some of the western beaches and there was some pretty significant damage to things like roads and some houses,” Seselja said.

“One of the good news is that I understand that the airport has not suffered any significant damage,” he added.

“That will be very, very important when the ash cloud clears and we can bring humanitarian flights to Tonga.”

Major aid organizations that would normally rush in to provide emergency humanitarian assistance said they were stuck in a queue and unable to contact local workers.

“Based on what little current information we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense – particularly for remote islands,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s Pacific Head of Delegation.

Even if relief efforts do get underway, they may be complicated by COVID-19 entry restrictions. Tonga recently reported its first case of coronavirus.


What is known is that Saturday’s volcanic explosion was one of the largest in decades, erupting 30 kilometers into the air and dumping ash, gas and acid rain over part of the Pacific Ocean.

The eruption was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggering a tsunami that inundated Pacific coasts from Japan to the United States.

It was estimated that the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa was shrouded in 1-2 centimeters of ash, possibly poisoning the water supply and causing breathing difficulties.

“We know that water is urgently needed,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters.

After speaking to the New Zealand embassy in Tonga, she described boats and “large boulders” washing ashore.

Wellington’s defense secretary said he understood the island nation had managed to restore power to “large parts” of the city.

But the communication was still cut off. The eruption severed an underwater communications cable between Tonga and Fiji that operators said would take weeks to repair.

“We’re getting spotty information, but it looks like the cable has been cut,” Dean Veverka, network director of Southern Cross Cable Network, told AFP.

“The repair can take up to two weeks. The nearest cable ship is in Port Moresby,” he added, referring to the capital of Papua New Guinea, which is more than 4,000 kilometers from Tonga.

At first it was believed that the fault was due to a power outage following the strong eruption, but further testing after power was restored revealed a broken wire.

Tonga was isolated for two weeks in 2019 when a ship’s anchor severed the cable. A small, locally operated satellite service was set up to allow minimal contact with the outside world until the cable could be repaired.


The crippled communications left Tongans outside the country desperate for news of loved ones.

“There is no communication,” Filipo Motulalo, a journalist with the Pacific Media Network, told AFP.

“Our home is near the area that has already been flooded, so we don’t know the extent of the damage.”

Motulalo said many Tongans abroad are concerned.

“I think the worst thing is the power outage and the fact that we don’t know anything,” he added. Many worried about elderly relatives coping in the volcanic dust-filled air.

The New Zealand Met Service said a huge “ash veil” was now “drifting westward across northern Australia”.

Several airlines reported flight disruptions as a network of volcanic ash advisory centers issued an aviation “code red”.


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