Volcanic mountains

Distress signal sparks UN concern after Tonga volcanic eruption

  • Australia and New Zealand send reconnaissance flights to Tonga
  • The Red Cross says 80,000 people could have been affected
  • Two people, including a British, missing
  • Two drowned in Peru
  • Ash clouds from the eruption moving towards New Zealand, Australia

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) – A distress signal has been detected in a group of isolated, low-lying islands in the Tonga archipelago following Saturday’s massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, officials said. United Nations, causing particular concern for its inhabitants.

Initial reports suggested no mass casualties on the main island of Togatapu, but two people were missing and the capital Nuku’alofa was badly damaged, as were resorts and homes along the western beaches of the island, he said.

“Further volcanic activity cannot be ruled out,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in Monday’s update, noting only minor injuries but stressing that official assessments, especially outlying islands, had not yet been published. with communications hit hard.

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The uninhabited volcanic island of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai all but disappeared after the explosion, according to satellite images from around 12 hours later. The Pacific archipelago was blanketed in ash, and clouds of volcanic ash spread to countries thousands of miles to the west.

OCHA said there had been no contact with the Ha’apai group of islands and there was “particular concern” about two small, low islands – Fonoi and Mango, where a distress beacon active had been detected. According to the government of Tonga, 36 people live in Mango and 69 in Fonoi.

Experts said the volcano, which last erupted in 2014, had been blowing for about a month before magma rose, superheated to around 1,000 degrees Celsius, encountering 20-degree seawater, causing an instantaneous and massive explosion.

The “astonishing” unusual speed and force of the eruption indicated a greater force at play than just the meeting of magma with water, the scientists said. Read more

Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday to assess the damage and Australian Pacific Minister Zed Seselja said Australian police had visited the beaches and reported extensive damage with “discarded houses”.

Briton Angela Glover, who ran a canine charity in Tonga, was killed, her brother told British media.

The impact of the eruption was felt as far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Japan. Two people drowned on a beach in northern Peru due to the high waves caused by the tsunami.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission to Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, said Tonga was concerned about the risk of aid deliveries spreading COVID-19 to the island, which is COVID-free.

“We don’t want to cause another wave – a tsunami of COVID-19,” Tu’ihalangingie told Reuters by phone.

“When people see such a huge explosion, they want to help,” he said, but added that diplomats in Tonga were also concerned about some private fundraising efforts and urged the public to wait until a disaster relief fund is announced.

Any aid sent to Tonga would have to be quarantined and it was likely that no foreign personnel would be allowed to disembark planes, he said.

International communications were severely hampered by damage to an undersea cable, which could take more than a week to restore, and Australia and New Zealand were helping with satellite calls, he said. declared.

Telephone networks in Tonga have been restored, but the ash posed a major health problem, contaminating drinking water.

“Most people don’t know that ash is poisonous and bad for them and they have to wear a mask,” Tu’ihalangingie said.

The Ha’atafu Beach Resort, on the Hihifo peninsula, 21 km (13 miles) west of the capital Nuku’alofa, has been “completely wiped out”, the owners said on Facebook.

The family running the resort ran for their lives in the bush to escape the tsunami, he added. “The entire west coast was completely destroyed along with the village of Kanukupolu,” the resort said.

The Red Cross said it was mobilizing its network to respond to what it called the worst volcanic eruption the Pacific has seen in decades.

Katie Greenwood, head of the Pacific delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters that up to 80,000 people could have been affected by the tsunami.

Alexander Matheou, the federation’s regional director for Asia-Pacific, said purifying water, providing shelter and reuniting families were the priorities – but they had yet to make direct contact. with colleagues in the field and relied on estimates based on previous such disasters.

Scientists struggled to monitor the volcano, after the explosion destroyed its sea-level crater and drowned its mass, obscuring it from satellites.

Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai has erupted steadily over the past decades. Early data suggests the eruption was the biggest explosion since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines 30 years ago, New Zealand volcanologist Shane Cronin told Radio New Zealand.

“This is an eruption best seen from space,” Cronin said.

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Reporting by Praveen Menon and Kirsty Needham; Additional reporting by Emma Farge; Written by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Alison Williams

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