Anxious times for islands

Tsunami-hit Tonga remained largely uncontactable last night with telephone and internet links severed, leaving relatives in New Zealand praying for their families on the Pacific islands as casualty reports had yet to come through.

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai underwater volcano erupted on Saturday, triggering warnings of 1.2m tsunami waves and evacuation orders on the shores of Tonga as well as several South Pacific islands, where footage on social media showed waves crashing into coastal homes.

Internet and phone lines went down about 6.40pm local time on Saturday, leaving the 105,000 residents on the islands virtually uncontactable.

There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as yet, although communications are limited and contact has not been established with coastal areas beyond the capital Nuku’alofa, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference yesterday.

"Nuku’alofa is covered in thick plumes of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable," Ms Ardern said.

"We have not yet received news from other coastal areas."

Footage posted on Twitter shows the waves coming ashore in Tonga. PHOTO: DR FAKA TAUMOEFOLAU
Footage posted on Twitter shows the waves coming ashore in Tonga. PHOTO: DR FAKA TAUMOEFOLAU
Satellite images captured the volcanic eruption on Saturday as the explosion sent plumes of smoke into the air and about 20km above sea level. The sky over Tonga was darkened by the ash.

Concerns were growing among the Tongan community in New Zealand, desperate to make contact with their families back home.

Ms Ardern said the main undersea communications cable had been impacted, likely due to loss of power.

Power was being restored in some areas on the islands and local mobile phones were slowly starting to work, she added.

Official damage assessments were not yet available, she said. But Ms Ardern said the New Zealand High Commission in Nuku’alofa had said the tsunami damaged boats, shops and other infrastructure.

A satellite image of the Tonga volcanic eruption. PHOTO: TONGA METEOROLOGICAL SERVICE
A satellite image of the Tonga volcanic eruption. PHOTO: TONGA METEOROLOGICAL SERVICE
A Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K Orion is set to undertake a reconnaissance flight from RNZAF Base Auckland Whenuapai this morning.

Mfat had made an initial $500,000 available to respond to any requests from the Tongan Government as they came in.

Thirty New Zealanders were registered on the SafeTravel website as being in Tonga.

Tonga’s cabinet held a crisis meeting yesterday and was contacting development partners, a spokeswoman for Zed Seselja, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, told Reuters.

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano has erupted regularly over the past few decades but Saturday’s eruption was so loud that residents in parts of faraway Fiji and New Zealand said they heard it.

"My entire house was shaking," Sanya Ruggiero, a consulting communications adviser based in Suva, about 750km from Tonga, said.

"My doors, windows, were all rattling like hell."

Rumblings and eruptions from the volcano continued to be heard through the night, Mr Ruggiero said. Hundreds of people were moved to evacuation centres in Suva. Fiji Airways had to cancel all its flights due to the ash clouds.

"This is the worst disaster Tonga has had in living memory and the recovery from this is going to take years," Mr Ruggiero said.

The eruptions triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific.

The United States urged people on its Pacific coastline to stay away from the shores and New South Wales region closed beaches. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens were advised to evacuate as waves of more than 1m hit coastal areas. 

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter