The first flights carrying emergency relief supplies for Tonga have landed, and more are on their way, after the runway at the Pacific island nation’s main airport was cleared of ash and debris from last weekend’s devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.
Like many other parts of the country, the runway at Nuku’alofa was blanketed in ash after the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an undersea volcano, which sent giant plumes of ash, volcanic debris, and smoke into the air.
A New Zealand air force Hercules C-130 transport plane is now on the ground in Tonga, after a four journey from Auckland.
“The aircraft is carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment,” Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a joint statement from the country’s foreign and defence ministries on Thursday.
The plane is expected to remain at the airport for about 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand, given concerns about the coronavirus. Tonga is one of the few countries in the world that is COVID-19 free and has maintained strict border controls.
Australian media reported that an Australian aid flight had also landed on Thursday.
Japan’s Ministry of Defense said it too would send relief by air with two C-130 planes due to depart “as early as today”. The planes will carry drinking water, the ministry said on Twitter.
The runway was cleared of ash and volcanic debris late on Wednesday, allowing the first relief flights to be deployed.
The eruption also cut off Tonga’s communications with the outside world, with damage assessments reliant on aerial surveillance flights by the New Zealand and Australian airforce. The first on-the-ground images of the scale of the devastation facing the country emerged only on Wednesday.
Pictures shared on social media by the Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga showed parts of Nuku’alofa, the capital, strewn with debris, and covered in thick brown ash.
Other images showed people clearing ash and removing debris from the streets.
A video shared on Facebook by Tonga’s minister of trade and economic development from the west of the main island of Tongatapu showed uprooted trees and piles of debris. A number of buildings appeared to have survived the wave, and work was underway to repair electricity pylons.
The United Nations and aid agencies have stressed the urgent need to get fresh water to the islands, after the saltwater from the tsunami contaminated supplies.
A ship from the New Zealand navy, carrying 250,000 litres of fresh water and with the ability to produce 70,000 litres of freshwater a day through its desalination plant, is expected to arrive on Friday, while Australia’s HMAS Adelaide is being loaded with supplies and equipment in Brisbane.
— Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga (@ConsulateKoT) January 19, 2022
Video scenes from Dr Viliami Uasike Latu, #Tonga Minister of Trade and Economic Development posted on FB. Just a snippet below. This is Hihifo side (Western side) of Tongatapu including Kanokupolu one of the badly hit villages. #Tonga #TongaVolcano #tongatsunami pic.twitter.com/d1zyXBwPo4
— Josephine Latu-Sanft (@JoLatuSanft) January 20, 2022
The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai on Saturday sent a tsunami crashing into parts of Tonga, which is spread across more than 100 islands, and prompted warnings for countries all around the Pacific.
It also ruptured Tonga’s undersea communications cable, cutting the country of 105,000 people off from the rest of the world.
Limited communications in Nuku’alofa have now been established, but the cable is expected to take at least four weeks to be repaired.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption was the most cataclysmic since 1991, when Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines. Three people in Tonga have been confirmed dead, but the UN estimates about 80 percent of the population has been affected.