All homes on one of Tonga’s islands destroyed, three dead

A satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano after its main eruption, in Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai, Tonga, January 18, 2022. Satellite Image 2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) – All the homes on one of Tonga’s small outer islands have been destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, with three people so far confirmed dead, the government said on Tuesday in its first update since the disaster struck.

With communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of the devastation after Saturday’s eruption had so far mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.

But the office of Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said in a statement that every home on Mango island, where around 50 people live, had been destroyed, only two houses remained on Fonoifua, and Namuka island had suffered extensive damage.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, earlier said pictures taken by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) showed “alarming” scenes of a village destroyed on Mango and buildings missing on Atata island, which is closer to the volcano.

“People panic, people run and get injuries. Possibly there will be more deaths and we just pray that is not the case,” Tu’ihalangingie told Reuters.

Sovaleni’s office said a 65-year-old woman on Mango and a 49-year-old man on Nomuka island had been killed, in addition to the British national whose body was found on Monday. A number of injuries were also reported.

Tsunami waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the Ha’apia island group, where Mango is located, and the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the office said. Residents were being moved to evacuation centres as 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.

ASH COVER

Satellite images from Sunday show the caldera of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai has collapsed and the island has lost a substantial percentage of its initial surface area, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A rescue operation began on Sunday for Atata, which has a population of about 100 people, with an evacuation under way.

“Challenges to sea and air transportation remain due to damage sustained by the wharves and the ash that is covering the runways,” the PM’s office said.

A thick layer of ash blankets the islands, the aerial images provided to Tonga by New Zealand and Australia showed.

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