New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa suffered “significant” damage from a powerful volcanic eruption that triggered a tsunami, but there were no reports of injuries or deaths as of yet.
Ardern’s comments on Sunday came as Pacific nations and humanitarian groups struggled to establish communications with Tonga, a day after the disasters cut telephone and internet connections, leaving its 105,000 residents virtually unreachable.
Ardern said her government has now made contact with the New Zealand embassy in Nuku’alofa.
“The tsunami has had a significant impact on the foreshore on the northern side of Nuku’alofa with boats and large boulders washed ashore,” she told reporters.
“Nuku’alofa is covered in a thick film of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable.”
She said there were no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as of yet, although communications were “limited” and contact has not been established with coastal areas beyond the capital.
She added that New Zealand was not able to send a military surveillance flight over Tonga because the ash cloud was 19,000 metres (63,000 feet) high but they hoped to send the flight on Monday, followed by supply planes and navy ships.
New Zealand’s Defence Force said in a tweet that it was ready to send a reconnaissance aircraft “as soon as atmospheric conditions allow”.
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 Fiji, which is 800 km (500 miles) away, and in New Zealand, which is 2,300km (1,400 miles) away, said they heard it.
Satellite images captured the volcanic eruption as the explosion sent plumes of smoke into the air and about 20 kilometres (12 miles) above sea level.
The sky over Tonga was darkened by the ash.
A 1.2-metre wave swept ashore in the Tongan capital, with locals reporting they had fled to higher ground, leaving behind flooded houses, some with structural damage, and with small stones and ash falling from the sky.
Tonga’s King Tupou VI was reported to have been evacuated from the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa and taken by police convoy to a villa well away from the coastline.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) Pacific Office in Suva, Fiji, said it was monitoring the situation and had no updates on damages or casualties.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter that he was “deeply concerned for the people of Tonga as they recover from the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and tsunami. The United States stands prepared to provide support to our Pacific neighbors.”
The US Geological Survey recorded Saturday’s eruptions as equivalent to a magnitude 5.8 earthquake at zero depth.
The eruptions triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific, including in Samoa, Australia, Japan, Hawaii, Chile and the US Pacific Coast.
Japanese broadcaster NHK reported waves of more than a metre hitting coastal areas and said authorities advised about 230,000 people living across eight prefectures to evacuate.
In Chile, waves of 1.74 metres (5.5 feet) were measured in the coastal town of Chanaral, while smaller waves were seen along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico.
By 03:00 GMT on Sunday, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said the threat from the eruption had passed.
New Zealand scientist Marco Brenna, a senior lecturer at Otago University’s School of Geology, described the effect of the eruption as “relatively mild” but said another eruption packing a bigger punch could not be ruled out.