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Massive damages on tsunami-hit Tonga islands, death toll could rise

A general view from a New Zealand Defence Force P-3K2 Orion surveillance flight shows ash covered homes and vegetation over Nomuka in Tonga after the Pacific island nation was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive undersea volcanic eruption January 17, 2022. New Zealand Defence Force/Handout via REUTERS

A large volcanic explosion and tsunami caused considerable damage to Tonga’s small outer islands, a Tongan envoy said on Tuesday, sparking worries of further deaths and injuries.

A satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano before its main eruption, in Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, Tonga, January 6, 2022. Satellite Image ?2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

The news: According to diplomat, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, “alarming” photographs collected by New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) reconnaissance flights revealed an entire hamlet destroyed on Mango island and other houses missing on neighbouring Atata island.

  • The reported death toll in Tonga was two, according to the New Zealand High Commission, but the real number of deaths was unknown due to a communications outage in the South Pacific island nation.
  • Tongan officials hope to evacuate residents from the isolated, low-lying Ha’apai islands group and other outer islands, where conditions are extremely harsh, we understand, with many dwellings destroyed in the tsunami.
  • A distress signal was discovered at Ha’apai, where Mango is located. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the area was struck by waves that were estimated to be 5-10 metres high.
A satellite image shows the main port facilites after the main eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, January 18, 2022. Satellite Image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

What’s going on: Atata and Mango lie between 50 and 70 kilometres from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which erupted on Saturday and produced tsunami waves over the Pacific Ocean, as well as being heard 2,300 kilometres (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand.

  • Atata has a population of approximately 100 people, whereas Mango has a population of about 50.
  • Tarpaulins were also utilised as shelter on Mango island, according to the NZDF photographs, which were shared unofficially on a Facebook site and corroborated by Tu’ihalangingie.
  • Angela Glover, 50, a British national, was taken by the tsunami while attempting to save the dogs she cared for at a rescue shelter, according to her brother, making her the first known victim in the tragedy.
  • The main airport of the archipelago, Fua’amotu International Airport, was not damaged in Saturday’s eruption and tsunami, but thick ashfall has hampered international aid efforts.
  • Tongan officials told the UN humanitarian office that clearing the runway would take days because it was being done manually, and that it would be done by Wednesday at the earliest.
  • People on the western coast of Tongatapu’s main island had been evacuated due to severe damage, and government ministers had issued radio cautions against price gouging amid fears of supply shortages.
  • Tomorrow, the Tongan government is scheduled to make an official appeal for assistance from countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
  • Both countries have C-130 military transport planes on standby, loaded with emergency supplies.
A satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano after its main eruption, in Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, Tonga, January 18, 2022. Satellite Image 2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

What’s next: Since the eruption, which severed the archipelago’s primary undersea communications cable, the archipelago has been cut off from the rest of the globe.

  • Subcom, a private firm based in the United States that is contracted to repair numerous subsea cables throughout Asia-Pacific, announced that it is working with Tonga Cable Ltd to repair the cable that connects Tonga and Fiji.
  • Tonga Cable’s chair, Samiuela Fonua, said two cuts in the undersea cable would not be repaired until volcanic activity subsided, allowing repair personnel access.
A general view from a New Zealand Defence Force P-3K2 Orion surveillance flight shows heavy ash fall over Nomuka in Tonga after the Pacific island nation was hit by a tsunami triggered by an undersea volcanic eruption January 17, 2022. New Zealand Defence Force/Handout via REUTERS

According to satellite photographs taken approximately 12 hours after the blast, the island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, which is located on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, all but vanished, making it difficult for volcanologists to monitor activity.

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