Despite huge volcano blast, Tonga avoids widespread disaster


WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The blast from the volcano could be heard in Alaska, and the waves crossed
the ocean to cause an oil spill and two drownings in Peru. The startling satellite images resembled a
massive nuclear explosion.
And yet, despite sitting almost on top of the volcano that erupted so violently on Saturday, the Pacific
nation of Tonga appears to have avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.
In its first update since the eruption, the government said Tuesday it has confirmed three deaths — two
local residents and a British woman. Concerns remain over the fate of people on two hard-hit smaller
islands, where most houses were destroyed, it said. Communications have been down everywhere, making
assessments more difficult.
But on Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, perhaps the biggest problem is the ash that has transformed it
into a gray moonscape, contaminating the rainwater that people rely on to drink. New Zealand’s military
is sending fresh water and other much-needed supplies, but said Tuesday the ash covering Tonga’s main
runway will delay the flight at least another day.
On Tongatapu, at least, life is slowly returning to normal. The tsunami that swept over coastal areas
after the eruption was frightening for many but rose only about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet), allowing most
to escape.
"We did hold grave fears, given the magnitude of what we saw in that unprecedented blast," said
Katie Greenwood, the head of delegation in the Pacific for the International Federation of Red Cross and
Red Crescent Societies. "Fortunately, in those major population centers we are not seeing the
catastrophic effect we thought might happen, and that’s very good news."
Greenwood, who is based in Fiji and has been talking with people in Tonga by satellite phone, said an
estimated 50 homes were destroyed on Tongatapu but that nobody needed to use emergency shelters. She
said about 90 people on the nearby island of ‘Eua were using shelters.
U.N. humanitarian officials and Tonga’s government has reported "significant infrastructural
damage" around Tongatapu.
"There has been no contact from the Ha’apai Group of islands, and we are particularly concerned
about two small low-lying islands — Mango and Fonoi — following surveillance flights confirming
substantial property damage," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
New Zealand’s High Commission in Tonga also reported significant damage along the western coast of
Tongatapu, including to resorts and the waterfront area.
Like other island nations in the Pacific, Tonga is regularly exposed to the extremes of nature, whether
it be cyclones or earthquakes, making people more resilient to the challenges they bring.
Indeed, Greenwood said Tonga does not want an influx of aid workers following the eruption. Tonga is one
of the few remaining places in the world that has managed to avoid any outbreaks of the coronavirus, and
officials fear that if outsiders bring in the virus it could create a much bigger disaster than the one
they’re already facing.
Another worry, said Greenwood, is that the volcano could erupt again. She said there is currently no
working equipment around it which could help predict such an event.
Satellite images captured the spectacular eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday,
with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific. The volcano is
located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.
Two people drowned in Peru, which also reported the oil spill after waves moved a ship that was
transferring oil at a refinery.
In Tonga, British woman Angela Glover, 50, was one of those who died after being swept away by a wave,
her family said.
Nick Eleini said his sister’s body had been found and that her husband survived. "I understand that
this terrible accident came about as they tried to rescue their dogs," Eleini told Sky News. He
said it had been his sister’s life dream to live in the South Pacific and "she loved her life
New Zealand’s military said it hoped the airfield in Tonga would be opened either Wednesday or Thursday.
The military said it had considered an airdrop but that was "not the preference of the Tongan
New Zealand also sent a navy ship to Tonga on Tuesday, with another planned to leave later in the day,
and pledged an initial 1 million New Zealand dollars ($680,000) toward recovery efforts.
Australia sent a navy ship from Sydney to Brisbane to prepare for a support mission if needed.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Tuesday said China is preparing to send drinking
water, food, personal protective equipment and other supplies to Tonga as soon as flights resume.
The U.N. World Food Program is exploring how to bring in relief supplies and more staff and has received
a request to restore communication lines in Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, Dujarric said.

Communications with the island nation are limited because the single underwater fiber-optic cable that
connects Tonga to the rest of the world was likely severed in the eruption. The company that owns the
cable said the repairs could take weeks.
Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd., said the cable appeared to have been severed
soon after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix
it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three
weeks. He added that it was unclear when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea
volcano to undertake the work.
A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Fonua
said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the
lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.
Associated Press journalist Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.


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