New photos from Tonga give clearer picture of volcano and tsunami devastation


Three of Tonga’s smaller islands suffered heavy damage of tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said Wednesday, as a broader picture begins to emerge destruction caused by the eruption of an underwater volcano near the Pacific archipelago on Saturday. The eruption was strong enough to trigger a tsunami alert for the US west coast.

Communications have been cut across Tonga since the eruption, but a ship reached the offshore islands of Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua on Wednesday and reported that few houses remained after settlements were hit by 15-metre waves, said Katie Greenwood, who Head of the Pacific delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which had two people on board the ship to help with the damage assessment.

After days of little information coming out, photos have emerged showing damage in the capital, Nuku’alofa.

This screenshot from video captured by Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5’s Marian Kupu shows damage in Nuku’alofa, Tonga on January 18, 2022 following the volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Marian Kupu / Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5 / REUTERS

“Very unfortunate information has come to light overnight about the three islands, which has really concerned us – that they have all suffered devastating consequences from these oncoming waves,” Greenwood told The Associated Press in an interview from Fiji. “Most of the buildings and dwellings on these islands have been completely destroyed.”

The Tonga government has described the tsunami as “an unprecedented disaster” for the country. The tsunami completely destroyed one village, while only a few houses remained in several other settlements, the AFP news agency reported.

The Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga released photos showing damage in the capital region.

Other images captured in coastal areas show debris strewn across the coast. Trees were uprooted, buildings and vehicles were damaged or destroyed, and the islands were covered with a layer of volcanic ash.

A view of a beach and debris following a volcanic eruption and tsunami in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
A view of a beach and debris following the volcanic eruption and tsunami in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, January 18, 2022.

Courtesy Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5/via REUTERS

Local residents began the cleanup as the world continued to wait for details on the extent of the damage and what kind of outside help might be needed.

Tonga, an archipelago of islands with a population of about 105,000, is located about 1,480 miles northeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific. About two-thirds of the population live on the island of Tongatapu, where the capital is located.

People clear debris after volcanic eruption and tsunami in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
People clear debris after the volcanic eruption and tsunami in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, January 18, 2022.

Courtesy Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5/via REUTERS

It’s not yet clear what help Tonga needs or wants from the international community, and the country’s concern over the possible spread is complicating matters COVID-19, which has effectively kept it outside its borders, with the exception of one case reported in October in a traveler from New Zealand.

Tonga is hoping for “nearly contactless disaster relief” as a precaution, Greenwood said, acknowledging that it would complicate efforts but is also understandable given the pandemic.

In anticipation of the country’s needs, New Zealand has already dispatched two ships. One is transporting 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of water and a desalination plant with the capacity to produce another 70,000 liters (18,492 gallons) per day, and another is bringing in a survey and diving team to help assess damage to shipping channels, harbors and port infrastructure.

They are expected to take three to four days to arrive, although one estimate was they could be there as early as Friday, said Peeni Henare, New Zealand’s defense minister.

“We don’t know what the shipping lanes are like, so obviously we want to exercise some caution when approaching the Tongan islands,” he said.

The New Zealand military prepares relief supplies for Tonga
New Zealand Defense Force photo shows personnel stacking and securing pallets of disaster relief supplies to be sent to Tonga by C-130 on January 17, 2022.

Dillon Robert Anderson/New Zealand Defense Force via Getty Images

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said teams along the way would also be available to help evacuate the roughly 150 people living on the devastated offshore islands if needed.

“We stand ready to assist where useful to the Tonga government and where they are comfortable with COVID protocols,” she said.

Australia is also preparing to send aid by air and sea, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he expects to speak to his Tonga counterpart later on Wednesday to better understand what is needed.

“Our defense forces have suspended their operation and will be deployed as needed and as directed,” he said. “So we feel deeply for our family in Tonga.”

The volcano covered the main island with a two centimeter thick layer of ash, rendering the runway at Fua’amotu International Airport unusable.

Satellite imagery of Tonga after volcanic eruption
Maxar satellite imagery of houses and buildings in Tonga before the volcanic eruption and tsunami (left) and afterwards, covered in ash (right).

Satellite Image (c) 2022 Maxar Technologies

Volunteers have been working to sweep away ash to clear a path for relief planes to land, and there was hope it could be ready as early as Thursday.

Mahuta said the runway wasn’t damaged under the ash, but they wouldn’t know for sure until everything was cleared.

A New Zealand reconnaissance plane has already flown over the affected islands and sent the data to Tonga’s government.

Communications have been severely curtailed as the only underwater fiber optic cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world was likely severed in the eruption. The company that owns the cable said repairs could take weeks.

Satellite imagery captured the spectacular eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, in which a plume of ash, steam and gas rose like a giant mushroom over the South Pacific. The volcano is about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Tonga’s capital.

Tonga volcano eruption
This satellite image, acquired by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite, shows an underwater volcanic eruption in Pacific Tonga on January 15, 2022.

Japan Meteorology Agency via AP

The large amount of ash in the air has also meant satellite communications have been sporadic, but it’s improving, Greenwood said.

The government said on Tuesday it had confirmed three deaths – two residents and one British woman – although it has warned the toll is likely to rise as more reports come in from remote areas.

On Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, perhaps the biggest problem is the ash, which has turned it into a gray lunar landscape and contaminates the rainwater people normally depend on for drinking.

Greenwood said people have been warned in advance to protect their water supplies and clean drinking water remains the number one need.

“Water is definitely a 100 percent top priority at this point, along with the need for shelter,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Tonga Red Cross, which has about 20 staff and 100 trained volunteers, is already distributing kits for shelter and other supplies, she said.

In Sydney, Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce Deputy President Koniseti Liutai said his organization is facilitating free shipping of containers for members of the local Tongan community to send aid to their relatives back home.

In particular, he said, they tried to address specific needs that they had identified, namely those of the elderly or disabled.

“We know that the governments of Tonga and Australia and New Zealand and others are looking at food and water,” he said. “We’re trying to be a little more specific for family requirements.”

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