Tsunami waves reaching up to 15 metres hit remote area that sent distress signal

The Tongan government has raised concerns about the tiny islands of Mango and Fonoifua islands – north-east of the main island of Tongatapu – which both suffered catastrophic damage from the tsunami and volcano eruption on Saturday.

The Tongan government reported on Tuesday night that all houses had been destroyed on Mango Island, and only two houses remained on Fonoifua.

The news came in the first statement released by the government since the disaster on Saturday, which damaged the undersea cable, cutting off communications between Tonga and the rest of the world.

In the statement, the Tongan government said tsunami waves reaching up to 15 metres (49ft) hit the Ha’apai island group, where Mango is located, and the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu. Residents were being moved to evacuation centres after 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.

Mango is located about 70km (43 miles) from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean when it erupted with a blast felt more than 2,000km away in New Zealand.

The Tongan prime minister also confirmed that there had been three recorded deaths from the disaster: a 65-year-old woman on Mango and a 49-year-old man on Nomuka island, as well as the 50-year-old British woman whose body was found on Monday. A number of injuries were also reported.

On Monday, the UN detected a distress signal from Mango, prompting particular concern for their inhabitants; 36 people live on Mango.

Aerial images prepared by the New Zealand defence force for the Tongan government, which were leaked on Tuesday, of Mango Island, showed that the small island had sustained “catastrophic damage”.

“Catastrophic damage was observed with the entire village destroyed. Temporary tarpaulin shelters had been erected on the island’s higher areas. Debris was observed throughout the village,” said the annotated image.

The Tongan government has started evacuating stranded residents in some outlying areas.

Aid has been sent to Tonga, with two New Zealand naval vessels en route to the islands and due to arrive on Friday. An Australian naval vessel, also containing relief supplies, was due to depart on Wednesday.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, said he had spoken to his Tongan counterpart, Siaosi Sovaleni, and reassured him “Australia stands shoulder to shoulder with the Kingdom of Tonga”.

“Australia has committed an initial package of $1m towards Tonga’s recovery effort,” Morrison said on Wednesday evening.

“Two RAAF aircraft are ready to depart tomorrow with humanitarian supplies and telecommunications equipment, as soon as conditions allow. HMAS Adelaide is also preparing to depart from Brisbane with water purification equipment and additional humanitarian supplies.”

Aid groups are particularly concerned with making sure safe drinking water was delivered to communities, as water supplies across Tonga were disrupted by layers of volcanic ash and salt water dumped on the islands by the eruption and tsunami.

Katie Greenwood, the Pacific head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said: “Water supplies across Tonga have been severely impacted by ashfall and saltwater from the tsunami. It’s vital to restore access to safe drinking water as there is a mounting risk of diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea.”

Tonga Red Cross emergency teams are providing people with clean water, tarpaulins, shelter tool kits, kitchen sets and other essential relief.

Clearing the airport runway of ash is a priority for the government. The archipelago’s main Fua’amotu international airport was not damaged but the ash needs to be manually removed.

This story was produced by Kate Lyons, originally published at The Guardians on 19 January 2022, reposted via PACNEWS.

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