Tonga faces ‘unprecedented disaster’ as New Zealand warns of further eruptions and tsunami risk

A massive volcanic eruption and tsunami near Tonga caused “an unprecedented disaster,” the Pacific nation’s leader said Tuesday, as New Zealand warned of further eruptions that may complicate the delivery of aid to remote islands where communications are down.

In its first official update since Saturday’s eruption of the underwater Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, Tonga’s government on Tuesday confirmed the deaths of three people and several other injuries, and outlined the scale of destruction to communities.

Tongan Prime Minster Siaosi Sovaleni said all houses on the island of Mango, where 36 people live, were destroyed. Only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, and extensive damage was reported on Nomuka island, home to 239 people, he said.

“An unprecedented disaster hit Tonga,” Sovaleni said, adding a “volcanic mushroom plume” extended to cover all of the country’s roughly 170 islands — of which 36 are inhabited — impacting the entire population of more than 100,000 people.

According to experts, the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano was likely the biggest volcanic event recorded since Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.

On Tuesday, New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry warned further eruptions of the volcano were likely, posing a tsunami risk.

The estimation was based on modeling by GNS Science, a New Zealand geological research institute, the ministry said. “The most likely scenario is for ongoing eruptions in the next several days to weeks, with ongoing tsunami risk to Tonga and New Zealand,” it said.

The eruption on Saturday generated tsunami waves up to 49 feet (15 meters) high that hit the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, and the ‘Eua and Ha’api islands.

A United Nations spokesperson said an initial assessment by Tongan authorities found 100 houses were damaged and 50 destroyed on Tongatapu, the country’s main island, home to the majority of the population. No evacuation centers are open on the main island, and people who were displaced are mostly staying with extended families.

On ‘Eua, 89 people are in evacuation centers, the spokesperson said, adding that information from outer islands remains scarce.

The first details of the devastation emerged on Tuesday after Tonga’s Pacific neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, made reconnaissance flights to the archipelago — a three- to five-hour journey.

Photos show entire island communities that were once lush and green, now blanketed by thick, gray ash. Many homes appear damaged or completely destroyed.

Widespread stagnant pools of salt water, coupled with the volcanic ash, are polluting drinking water sources, according to the Red Cross.

The delivery of aid was hampered by ashfall covering Tonga’s Fua’amotu International Airport runway, forcing New Zealand to send two navy ships to assist with recovery — but they will not arrive until Friday.

Yutaro Setoya, the official in charge of the WHO liaison office for Tonga, said he believed the first aid flights could arrive on Thursday.

He also described the the conditions in the wake of the disaster.

“After the eruption initially, there was a sound on the roof like rain, and it was not actually a rain. It was small pellets falling from the sky,” Setoya told CNN on Wednesday. The pellets were followed by very fine ash, which by the time Tonga woke up the next day resembled “gray snow like two centimeters everywhere.”

With cleanup efforts underway, rescue workers are racing to deliver safe drinking water to the island nation as it grapples with the shortages.

“Securing access to safe drinking water is a critical immediate priority,” said Katie Greenwood, the Pacific Head of Delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, pointing to the mounting risk of diarrhea and diseases such as cholera.

Planet Today

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