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Tonga volcanic eruption, Tsunami cause significant damage

A grab taken from footage by Japan's Himawari-8 satellite and released by the National Institute of Information and Communications (Japan) on January 15, 2022 shows the volcanic eruption that provoked a tsunami in Tonga (Photo: AFP)Premium
A grab taken from footage by Japan's Himawari-8 satellite and released by the National Institute of Information and Communications (Japan) on January 15, 2022 shows the volcanic eruption that provoked a tsunami in Tonga (Photo: AFP)

No official reports of casualties or deaths; tsunami sparks advisories to stay away from beaches in New Zealand, Australia and parts of the US West Coast

Tonga’s main island has sustained significant damage from a volcanic eruption and tsunami, New Zealand’s leader said, promising rapid aid for a Pacific archipelago that remains largely cut off from the world a day after the powerful waves crashed onto its shores.

An undersea volcano erupted on Saturday, generating a gigantic ash cloud and triggering a tsunami that was centered on Tonga, and prompted advisories to stay away from beaches in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and parts of the U.S.’s West Coast.

There have been no official reports from Tonga of casualties or deaths. Videos posted online not long after the eruption and information relayed by New Zealand diplomats on Tonga’s largest island, Tongatapu, indicated significant damage to property. The country has a population of about 100,000 people.

The situation on other Tongan islands remains uncertain due to a paucity of information that stems from power blackouts and loss of communications. The submarine cable that provides much of Tonga’s international connectivity is likely not operating because of power loss rather than being damaged, according to New Zealand’s government.

Calls to government offices, emergency services and hotels in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, didn’t connect on Sunday. Kentik, an internet monitoring service, said connectivity with Tonga plummeted to zero early Saturday evening in the aftermath of the eruption.

Filipo Motulalo, a resident of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, said it was an intensely worrying time for Tonga’s diaspora communities. He had been unable to contact family in Tonga since Saturday evening. Initially, people had been able to make contact over social media, but that too had shut down, he said.

“People are feeling anxiety," said Rev. Kalolo Fihaki, superintendent of the Tongan Synod of the Methodist Church of New Zealand. Tongans in Australia and New Zealand on Sunday created a prayer chain using Zoom with about 3,000 people participating, he said. According to Rev. Fihaki, clean water is likely to be the most pressing need for low-lying Tonga.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Sunday that the tsunami had a significant impact on the foreshore of the northern side of Nuku’alofa, with boats and large boulders washed ashore and shops damaged. She said the capital is covered in a thick film of volcanic dust but is otherwise calm and stable.

“However I would note we have not yet received information from other coastal areas of Tongatapu or the outer islands," she said.

Katie Greenwood, the head of the delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, based in Suva, Fiji, said it is likely that its local teams in Tonga are already providing relief.

Still, the Red Cross is largely in the dark as to the extent of the damage from the tsunami because communications are down. The limited information available suggests no fatalities, but there are fears for communities closest to the eruption, Ms. Greenwood said.

“The actual size of this eruption was quite a shock. We heard the noise of the eruption in Fiji. It was like cannon shots and seismic booms," she said. “We could feel the doors and windows shaking from 700 kilometers (435 miles) away for about half an hour."

New Zealand and Australia are sending air force surveillance planes to assess damage to the archipelago once the ash cloud from the eruption has dissipated. New Zealand’s navy is also prepared to send a frigate or other vessel, depending on the specific requirements of the relief effort.

An initial aid pledge of 500,000 New Zealand dollars—equivalent to about $340,000—is just the beginning of the country’s assistance to Tonga, Ms. Ardern said. An Australian government statement said it is ready to respond to requests for assistance.

Video posted online by a Tongan government worker who identified himself on Twitter as Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau showed fast-moving but relatively low waves crashing ashore and inundating homes. Other posts from Mr. Taumoefolau described the sound of the eruption as “pretty violent" and reported significant ash fall and darkened skies.

Tonga’s consulate to the European Union posted images of flooded coastal areas and properties on its Twitter account. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said he was following the situation with concern and U.N. offices in the Pacific are on standby to provide support if needed.

Wave surges and tsunami waves were experienced as far afield as New Zealand and Japan, while the Australian state of New South Wales closed beaches as a precautionary measure.

New Zealand media published photos of boats damaged by wave surges in a marina in the far north of the country.

Tsunami waves as tall as 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) were recorded in one remote Japanese region early Sunday morning and as high as 1.1 meters in a part of northern Japan, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. No injuries were reported. In some regions including places that were struck by tsunamis after Japan’s March 2011 earthquake, sirens roused people in the middle of the night to evacuate their homes.

The Tongan volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, has had a series of eruptions in recent weeks and has formed a new small island in the Pacific.

Tonga, in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, is an archipelago of about 170 islands formed by ancient volcanic eruptions. Once part of the British Empire, Tonga regained full independence in 1970. Its economy is reliant on agriculture and trade with New Zealand and Australia.


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