Tonga Struggles After Massive Eruption

Tonga Struggles After Massive Eruption

( – On January 15, a volcanic eruption rocked the Polynesian nation of Tonga. Days later, the country continues to reel from the natural disaster and tries to assess the situation in the face of rough conditions and roadblocks. Here’s what we know about this developing story.

A Volcano Erupts

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano was massive. People in New Zealand, which is 1,430 miles away, heard the blast, and the sonic boom was audible as far away as Alaska, which is a distance of over 6,000 miles from the volcano. The resulting tsunami had waves reaching over 49 feet in height.

The impact of the blast hit the Ha’apia island group and mainland Tonga’s west coast. Satellite images show a nation wholly devastated by this event. The island’s government is working to evacuate and get aid to citizens, but the work is slow due to the widespread damage.

The Devastation and Victims

Even three days after the eruption, the extent of the damage remains unknown. After the blast, the volcano collapsed, which led to a significant loss of surface area on the island. Mango Island, which has a population of 50 people, has no homes remaining, and Fonoifua has only two surviving houses.

Nomuka has extensive damage, but the details are not known. Atata, which is close to the volcano, had multiple buildings wiped out. Fifty-six homes on the mainland’s west coast were severely damaged or completely destroyed.

As of January 18, the government confirmed three deaths. The first was Angela Glover, a British national who lived in Tonga and founded the Tonga Animal Welfare Society. Glover died after waves swept her away as she tried to rescue her dogs. The two other fatalities were a woman on Mango Island and a man on Nomuka Island. There have been reports of multiple injuries, and officials believe the death toll will rise.

Beyond the immediate injuries and loss of life, experts expect long-term impacts from the blast. They project damage to coral reefs and potential acid rain. There are also lingering concerns over the contamination of water sources, leading officials to tell residents to drink only bottled water.

A Struggle for Relief

Limited communication is significantly hampering relief efforts in Tonga. The eruption led to the severing of the undersea cables that provided phone and internet service to the nation. Most information about the current status is coming from reconnaissance aircraft.

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni issued a brief statement giving the damage assessment and a request for further help. However, it is difficult for aid to come via the sea or air because of collapsed wharves and ash covering surfaces of runways. Reports said the Fua’amotu International Airport’s runway was operational again as of January 19.

The Tongan navy is working to assist with finding victims, providing food and water, providing tents for shelter, and rendering aid as needed. Australia is planning to offer water, supplies and air support.

Currently, all communications are mainly by satellite phones, but some areas remain blacked out with no contact. Mobile provider Digicel set up a system on the main island to provide some service, and Subcom is working on repairing the undersea cables but cannot complete projects until all volcanic activity stops. As of Wednesday, it was announced that it would likely take four weeks or longer to restore the cable connection.

More information about the aftermath of this disaster is sure to come once the area stabilizes and complete rescue and aid efforts can begin.

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