Drinking water and ashes are a big concern as Tonga is damaged after the tsunami

  • Australia and New Zealand send reconnaissance flights to Tonga
  • The Red Cross says the scale of the devastation could be immense
  • Missing Briton
  • Ash clouds from the eruption moving towards New Zealand, Australia

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) – Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday to assess the damage in Tonga, cut off from the rest of the world after a volcano erupted that triggered a tsunami and blanketed the Pacific island in ash.

Australia’s Pacific Minister Zed Seselja said initial reports suggested no mass casualties from Saturday’s eruption and tsunami, but Australian police had visited the beaches and reported extensive damage with “discarded houses”.

“We know there is significant damage and there is significant damage to resorts,” he said in an interview with an Australian radio station, adding that Tonga airport seemed to be in relatively good condition.

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A British woman was reported missing, he said.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission to Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, said surveillance flights were due to return on Monday evening. He asked for patience while the Tonga government decides on its aid priorities.

Tonga is concerned about the risk of aid deliveries spreading COVID-19 to the island, which is COVID-free.

“We don’t want to cause another wave – a tsunami of COVID-19,” he told Reuters by phone.

“When people see such a huge explosion, they want to help,” he said, but added that diplomats in Tonga were also concerned about some private fundraising efforts and urged the public to wait until a disaster relief fund is announced.

Any aid delivered to Tonga would have to be quarantined and it was likely that no foreign personnel would be allowed to disembark planes, he said.

The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano triggered a tsunami off the shores of Tonga and knocked out telephone and internet lines across the island.

International communications were severely hampered by damage to an undersea cable, which could take more than a week to restore, he said. Tonga’s cabinet was meeting to decide on the most urgent aid.

Telephone networks in Tonga have been restored, but the ash posed a major health concern, contaminating drinking water.

“Most people don’t know that ash is poisonous and bad for them and they have to wear a mask,” Tu’ihalangingie said.

‘COMPLETELY DESTROYED’

The Ha’atafu Beach Resort, on the Hihifo peninsula, 21 km (13 miles) west of the capital Nuku’alofa, has been “completely wiped out”, the owners said on Facebook.

The family running the resort ran for their lives in the bush to escape the tsunami, he added. “The entire west coast was completely destroyed along with the village of Kanukupolu,” the resort said.

Britain’s Angela Glover disappeared after being swept away by a wave as she and her husband, James, owner of the Happy Sailor Tattoo in Nuku’alofa, went to pick up their dogs.

The husband managed to cling to a tree, but his wife, who runs a dog shelter, and their dogs were swept away, New Zealand public broadcaster TVNZ reported.

The Red Cross said it was mobilizing its regional network to respond to what it called the worst volcanic eruption the Pacific has seen in decades.

Katie Greenwood, head of the Pacific delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters that up to 80,000 people could have been affected by the tsunami.

Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai has erupted steadily for decades, but the impact of Saturday’s eruption was felt as far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Japan. Two people drowned on a beach in northern Peru due to high waves caused by the tsunami.

More than a day after the eruption, countries thousands of miles to the west are blanketed in volcanic ash clouds, New Zealand forecaster WeatherWatch said.

Early data suggests the eruption was the biggest explosion since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines 30 years ago, New Zealand volcanologist Shane Cronin told Radio New Zealand.

“This is an eruption best seen from space,” Cronin said.

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Reporting by Praveen Menon and Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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