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 disaster that many initially feared.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the ash that has coated the main island and transformed it into a gray moonscape, contaminating the rainwater that people rely on to drink.
New Zealand’s military is to send fresh water and other much-needed supplies, but said yesterday that the ash covering Tonga’s main runway would delay the flight at least until today.
Tonga has so far reported two deaths and concerns remain over the fate of people on two smaller islands that were hard hit.
Communications have been down everywhere, making assessments more difficult, but on the main island of 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 80cm, 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 that an estimated 50 homes had been 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.
UN humanitarian officials and the Tongan government have 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,” UN 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.
Greenwood said Tonga does not want an influx of aid workers following the eruption, as it is one of the few remaining places in the world that has managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19 and officials fear that if outsiders bring in the virus it could create a much bigger disaster than the one they are already facing.
British woman Angela Glover, 50, was one of those who died after being swept away by a wave, her family said.
Nick Eleini said that 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 in the UK.
He said it had been his sister’s life dream to live in the South Pacific and “she loved her life there.”
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