Tonga Volcano Relief Complicated By Communications Cutoff, Virus Fears

Only one person in Tonga has reportedly had COVID, making outside assistance a huge risk.

Tonga is reeling after a devastating volcanic eruption that caused a tsunami and left the island nation shrouded in ash and without internet service to coordinate urgent clean-up and relief operations.

The Tongan government said Tuesday at least three people were confirmed dead after the eruption on Saturday and that some islands were heavily damaged by tsunami waves that neared 50 feet. Every home on one outer island with a few dozen residents was destroyed, and only two houses remained on another, home to about 100 people, officials added.

There were few updates on the eruption until now because an undersea cable was severed in the eruption, cutting off the internet and many domestic phone calls, the government said. Officials were only able to reach outlying islands hit hard by the tsunami on Monday using satellite phones.

The huge eruption — estimated by NASA to be about 10 megatons — didn’t appear to cause the widespread devastation feared in some heavily populated areas. Officials are primarily worried about heavy levels of ash that have fallen over many islands and the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many people remain unaccounted for after the eruption due to the limited communications networks.

This combination of the satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows homes and buildings in Tonga on Dec. 29, 2021, above, and on Jan. 18, 2022, below.
This combination of the satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows homes and buildings in Tonga on Dec. 29, 2021, above, and on Jan. 18, 2022, below.
Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP

Tonga has, so far, largely escaped the coronavirus surge that has affected nearly every other nation on the planet: The country has reported just one case and zero deaths from the disease, and all incoming travelers are required to quarantine for 21 days to prevent any new infections.

Jonathan Veitch, a United Nations coordinator for the region based in Fiji, said aid workers were urgently working to determine how to deliver needed supplies to Tonga while minimizing any threat from the coronavirus.

Australia and New Zealand, some of the country’s nearest neighbors, have loaded up supply planes, but the Tongan airport is unusable due to ash. Aerial images released this week show homes and buildings blanketed in gray drifts.

Ships carrying equipment and relief supplies to help clear the runway are en route, but they are still days away, and it’s unclear how they plan to deliver any supplies without making direct contact.

Veitch said he was deeply concerned about the availability of water across the nation’s islands, which rely mainly on rain for drinking needs. Volcanic ash has spoiled those water supplies.

“The biggest thing that I’m concerned about is water,” Veitch told the BBC this week. “The vast majority of Tongans rely on rainwater for their supply and they can’t use it right now because it’s contaminated. … Any rainwater is acidic.”

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