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First Reports of Damages from Tonga in Wake of Volcanic Eruption and Tsunami

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows ash covered homes and buildings in Tonga, Jan. 18, 2022 after a huge undersea volcanic eruption.

Regional governments and international aid agencies are reporting significant damage to Tonga’s main island following last Saturday’s undersea volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami.

Officials with the United Nations humanitarian agency say several resorts and houses along the western beaches of Tongatapu have been destroyed or badly damaged, with the capital of Nuku’alofa covered in ash.

Preliminary reports of the aftermath of the disaster began coming in Monday after Australia and New Zealand sent military surveillance flights over the isolated Pacific island nation. Reports of damage have also come from Tongans using satellite phone service, which has been sporadic due to the ash that continues to hover over the islands.

The surveillance flights also detected significant damage on the small islands of Mango and Fonoi, home to a combined 105 people. The U.N. humanitarian agency says an active distress beacon has been detected from Mango.

In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defense Force, volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in an area of Tonga, Jan. 17, 2022.
In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defense Force, volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in an area of Tonga, Jan. 17, 2022.

Saturday’s eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, located about 64 kilometers north of Nuku’alofa, severely damaged the single undersea fiber-optic cable that provides phone and internet service to the island. Operators say repairs to the cable could take anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on the extent of the damage.

Tongan authorities are urging residents to wear masks and drink bottled water as the volcanic ash has turned the air toxic and contaminated the island’s fresh drinking water.

Australian and New Zealand military officials say their cargo planes are unable to deliver critically needed relief supplies until the runway at Tonga’s airport is cleared of ash.

Plans for the relief efforts are also complicated by concerns from Tongan authorities about relief workers bringing COVID-19 into the island, which has so far avoided the disease.

The family of 50-year-old British national Angela Glover, who was swept out to sea by the tsunami, said Monday her body had been recovered.

The eruption triggered tsunami warnings along much of the western U.S. coastline. Elsewhere, two people in Peru drowned due to high waves triggered by the tsunami.

Tonga lies along the seismically active Pacific "Ring of Fire" region, which is lined with seismic fault lines and active volcanoes.