SUVA, Fiji – International aid is on its way to the southern Pacific kingdom of Tonga, where a massive underwater volcano erupted on Saturday.
The eruption of the Hengja Tonga-Hung Hapai volcano was recorded as a magnitude 7.8 earthquake by the US Tsunami Warning System – the largest since Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 – and caused tsunamis from Tonga to Peru, Ecuador and California.
Scientists have estimated that it exerted a force equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima nuclear bombs, and the explosion was heard more than 750 kilometers (466 miles) away in Fiji.
The waves sank two people in Peru and caused minor damage in New Zealand and California.
The New Zealand High Commission in Tonga confirmed, Monday, significant damage to the nation’s west coast, an area known to be home to many resorts, as well as the waterfront of the capital, Nuku’alofa.
There have been no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga so far, with communications largely cut off. One British woman has been reported missing.
A thick layer of ash covers the capital, and authorities on the ground are working to establish contacts with smaller islands “as a matter of priority”.
This is the volcano’s second eruption in less than a month, with Tonga officials revealing it is seven times more powerful than the last eruption.
Speaking in Washington, D.C., NPR, Shane Cronin, a volcanologist at the University of Auckland, said the eruption was very significant due to three main factors.
Cut off from the outside world
Adding to the concern of loved ones living abroad, Tonga’s connections to the outside world remain largely cut, with international telephone lines and the Internet continuing to be cut off.
“The country’s only undersea cable internet connection to Fiji is inoperable,” Amanda Watson, a research fellow in the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, told Al Jazeera.
In 2019, Tonga had no internet when the same cable under the sea was damaged. “It took about two weeks to fix it, and repairs may take a similar amount of time on this occasion,” Watson added.
“People in Tonga are currently unable to communicate their needs or contact loved ones abroad, which adds another layer of difficulty for many.”
On Monday evening, TV New Zealand confirmed that it would indeed take several weeks before international phone lines and internet services were restored in Tonga, after an evaluation of the submarine cable showed two breaks in it; One of them is located near the volcano.
There is potential for further delay if there are more eruptions or if the cable is found buried on the sea floor.
Plumes of steam, smoke and ash are seen after the eruption of an underwater volcano 34 nautical miles (63 km) off the coast of Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga. [Lothar Slabon/EPA]
On Monday, Australia and New Zealand sent damage assessment reconnaissance flights in Tonga and said they were coordinating with the United States, France and other countries on the humanitarian response.
Australia’s Minister for Pacific Affairs, Zed Sesilga, said via Twitter that shelter, kitchen and hygiene kits were loaded onto an Australian Air Force plane on Monday evening, to be dispatched to support Tonga residents affected by the blast and tsunami.
He added that Australia was initially committing $1 million to provide humanitarian relief and emergency supplies to the people of Tonga, after the assessment team found Tonga’s domestic airport operating.
Some observers said access to safe drinking water and food is likely to be critical, with toxic ash also posing a threat to public health.
The United Nations said its offices in the region are closely monitoring the situation and stand ready to provide support when needed.
“The UN family in the Pacific stands ready to support the people of Tonga to recover from the volcanic eruption that occurred at the weekend and after the tsunami,” Acting UN Resident Coordinator Jonathan Fitch told Al Jazeera from Fiji.
“In close cooperation with the government of Tonga and our regional and international partners, we are working with the government to ensure that our support is targeted and effective. Our teams are on standby to provide them with emergency supplies of assistance, and our UN staff who are in Tonga are already supporting in-country coordination and response efforts.”
Meanwhile, there has been a huge outpouring of support from Tongan diaspora communities and others around the world, with many eager to send donations to the stricken nation.
In a statement on Monday, the Speaker of the Parliament of Tonga, Lord Vakavanua, said that more details about Tonga’s official disaster relief fund will be announced soon; He stressed that all relief funds provided “must be verified, transparent and legal.”
More volcanic eruptions are possible
After the eruption of the volcano on Saturday, many volcanologists and geologists were quick to warn that Tonga may not be above the worst of this crisis.
“A lot is still unknown,” Judith Hubbard, a structural geologist with a focus on earthquake hazards at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
“More eruptions are possible from the Hengja Tonga-Hung Hapai volcano, but we don’t know when and how large or how large they will be. It may be possible to say more once we can make post-eruptive assessments of the eruption, but that will be difficult because The volcano is underwater and the area is unsafe.”
Meanwhile, Tonga residents around the world are trying to remain hopeful amid the unknown.
In a video released on Monday, Her Royal Highness Princess Latovoipika, Princess of Tonga – the daughter of King Tupou VI and High Commissioner of Tonga to Australia – gave a morale boost to her people:
“Let’s focus on gratitude, faith, and turning to God,” she said out loud.
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