Tonga: Islands overrun, villages gone

Status: 01/19/2022 08:00 a.m

Rescue work is underway after an underwater volcano erupted near the island nation of Tonga. Helpers report great devastation after tsunami waves 15 meters high.

By Lena Bodewein, ARD Studio Singapore

An unprecedented disaster hit Tonga, caused by the volcanic eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai on Saturday evening. The government of Tonga issued a written statement after the disaster: “Tsunami waves up to 15 meters high hit the west coasts of Tongatapu, Eua and Ha’apai.”

Lena Bodewein
ARD-Studio Singapore

rescue ships on the way

The pictures that New Zealand and Australian reconnaissance planes were able to take show that entire islands were overrun by the tsunami waves. Villages have disappeared, houses damaged, people have taken refuge on higher ground and are holding out there.

Two Tonga rescue ships are on their way from the main island to more remote areas of the Pacific state. The first started its journey on Sunday, with a medical team on board. Since the crew reported great devastation on the islands, the second ship started with more relief supplies and medical equipment. However, it is still unclear whether the piers are to be used by ships or whether they were destroyed by the tsunami.

Not much is known about the number of victims either; the government has confirmed three dead so far. The coming days will show whether there are really only so few or whether it is because not all islands can be reached.

Ash cover hinders rescue work

“The underwater cables are damaged and the telephone network is down. Only yesterday a connection could be made to more remote islands, by satellite telephones and by radio,” says Jonathan Veitch. He coordinates the rescue work for the United Nations from neighboring Fiji.

A big problem is the volcanic ash that has settled after the eruption in a centimeter-thick layer over the islands of Tonga – also over the runway of the airport. “And clearing that ash is taking a lot longer than expected because there’s still new ash falling down,” says Veitch.

Nevertheless, he is confident that rescue flights can begin soon. “We can then send relief supplies, but we don’t know yet whether we can also send helpers. That’s because Tonga has a strict zero-Covid policy.”

A single Corona case has been recorded in Tonga since the beginning of the pandemic, otherwise the country has remained Covid-free. An important point for a small, fragile nation isolated by the Pacific.

Relief supplies also from California

Ships with relief supplies are on their way from New Zealand and Australia, as well as from China. The trips last up to four days. In California, far away, a ship company is getting ready for an aid trip. Because the owners of the company are from Tonga. A lot of their cargo trips go there. Many of their employees and customers are from Tonga.

“It is very close to us. Because we have no contact at all with the homeland. We don’t really know what is most urgently needed,” said manager Sesilia Langi Pahulu. But she knows from her own experience what is most important: water. She told reporters from the Reuters news agency.

“We load a lot of water because Tonga’s drinking water supplies will be lost. There is no public water supply, people depend on rainwater that they collect,” she says. “And I’m sure all the water tanks are full of rubble and ash.”

Unprecedented disaster – Tonga after volcanic eruption

Lena Bodewein, ARD Singapore, 19.1.2022 07:04 a.m

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