Tongan tsunami damage remains unknown as volcanic ash hinders response
Wellington: The tsunami threat around the Pacific from a huge undersea volcanic eruption receded on Sunday, but the massive ash cloud covering the tiny island nation of Tonga prevented surveillance flights from New Zealand to assess damage.
Satellite images showed the spectacular eruption on Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue Pacific waters. A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska.
A satellite image of the volcanic eruption.Credit:
In Tonga, it sent tsunami waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground.
The eruption cut the internet to Tonga, leaving friends and family members around the world anxiously awaiting information. Even government websites and other official sources remained without updates on Sunday afternoon.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there had not yet been any official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga, but cautioned that authorities had not yet made contact with some coastal areas and smaller islands.
“Communication with Tonga remains very limited … and I know that is causing a huge amount of anxiety for the Tongan community here [in New Zealand],” Ardern said.
She said there had been significant damage to boats and shops along the Tongan coastline. The capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, Ardern said, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.
Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.
In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.
“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.”
Ardern said New Zealand was unable to send a planned surveillance flight over Tonga on Sunday because the ash cloud was 19,000 metres) high, but they hoped to try again on Monday, followed by supply planes and navy ships.
One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.
Dave Snider, the tsunami warning co-ordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Centre in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”
The tsunami waves caused damage to boats as far away as New Zealand and Santa Cruz in California, but did not appear to cause any widespread damage. Snider said he anticipated the tsunami situation in the US and elsewhere to continue improving.
Tsunami advisories were earlier issued for parts of Australia, Japan, Hawaii, Alaska and the US Pacific coast.
In northern Peru’s Lambayeque region, two women drowned after being swept away by “abnormal waves” following the eruption, authorities said. A dozen restaurants and a coastal street were also flooded along El Chaco beach in Paracas district.
A dock was torn apart in Tutukaka, New Zealand after waves swept into the marina.Credit:Northern Advocate/NZME via AP
The US Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake.
Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano. She said she hadn’t yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.
“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.
Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva in Fiji. All internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6.40pm local time on Saturday, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.
On Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas and swirling around homes, a church and other buildings.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometres north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.
Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.
“The surface area of the island appears to have expanded by nearly 45 per cent due to ashfall,” Planet Labs said days before the latest activity.
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