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Tonga volcano: Officials try to clear ash from airport runway to allow aid planes to land

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 18/01/2022 Nicola Smith
Workers can be seen clearing the ash from the runway - MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES © Provided by The Telegraph Workers can be seen clearing the ash from the runway - MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES

Officials in Tonga were desperately working to clear thick layers of ash from the international airport’s runway on Tuesday so that planes could bring clean water and aid after a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Three people are confirmed to have died - two local residents and 50-year-old British charity worker Angela Glover - but there are growing fears for up to 100 people living on two small islands, Fonoi and Mango, where a distress signal was detected.

British charity worker Angela Parker, 50, was the first confirmed death from the tsunami © Provided by The Telegraph British charity worker Angela Parker, 50, was the first confirmed death from the tsunami

Three days after the eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, which was so powerful it was felt hundreds of miles away and flooded coastlines from Japan to California, the scale of the disaster remains unclear.

While power and local phone systems have been partially restored, international communications remain severed and the internet is down due to damage to the single underwater fibre-optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world.  

Fuaʻamotu International Airport on Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, remains standing, but Australia said the ash covering the runway must be cleared before it can land a C-130 military plane with emergency supplies. Satellite images showed people trying to manually clear a pathway to facilitate rescue efforts.

A satellite image shows the main runway of the Fua'amotu International Airport partially blocked due to volcanic ash - MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES © Provided by The Telegraph A satellite image shows the main runway of the Fua'amotu International Airport partially blocked due to volcanic ash - MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES

"Challenges to sea and air transportation remain due to damage sustained by the wharves and the ash that is covering the runways," said the office of the prime minister, Siaosi Sovaleni.

New Zealand's military said it hoped the airfield in Tonga would be opened either Wednesday or Thursday. The military said it had considered an airdrop but that was "not the preference of the Tongan authorities."

In the meantime, Tongans must wait for aid boats to arrive from New Zealand, which is three to five days’ sailing away.

First images from New Zealand Air Force surveillance planes flying over Tonga revealed “catastrophic” and “extensive” damage to some villages in low-lying coastal parts of the archipelago.

Two satellite images show the devastation in Nuku'alofa, on the Tongan coast - MAXAR/REUTERS © MAXAR/REUTERS Two satellite images show the devastation in Nuku'alofa, on the Tongan coast - MAXAR/REUTERS

Significant damage was reported along the western coast of Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, where there are many vacation resorts, and the waterfront of the capital, Nuku’alofa. The Ha’atafu Beach Resort, 13 miles west of Nuku’alofa, was “completely wiped out”, the owners said on Facebook.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said there was “particular concern” about two small islands, Fonoi and Mango, where a distress signal was detected. According to the Tonga government, 36 people live on Mango and 69 on Fonoi.

“Further volcanic activity cannot be ruled out,” OCHA said, reporting only minor injuries but emphasising that formal assessments, especially of the outer islands, had yet to be determined.

WHO’s liaison officer in Tonga, Dr Yutaro Setoya, is one of the few people with a satellite phone and has been working as one-man telephone system, "channelling communication between UN agencies and the Tongan government," according to the organisation’s Sean Casey.

The officer has "literally been standing outside from dawn until long into the night for the past few days to ensure that the phone can reach the satellite signal”.

Repairing the island’s only fibre-optic cable, which lies among sharp coral reefs, could take weeks.

A ship will need to pull up the cable to assess the damage once volcanic activity has ceased and then crews would need to fix it, said Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd.

He said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.

New Zealand has been at the forefront of international aid efforts. Yesterday/TUES, the country’s navy announced it had dispatched the HMNZS Wellington, carrying divers and hydrographers and a Seasprite helicopter, and the HMNZS Aotearoa, loaded with water and disaster relief supplies.

Volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in an area of Tonga - CPL Vanessa Parker /New Zealand Defense Force © Provided by The Telegraph Volcanic ash covers roof tops and vegetation in an area of Tonga - CPL Vanessa Parker /New Zealand Defense Force

Wellington has pledged an initial 1 million New Zealand dollars (£500,000) toward recovery efforts, while the United States has pledged $100,000 (£73,000).

Australia has also sent a navy ship from Sydney to Brisbane to prepare for a support mission if needed and China has said it is preparing to send drinking water, food, personal protective equipment and other supplies to Tonga as soon as flights resume.

Any aid efforts will be complicated by strict Covid-19 restrictions that only allow Tongan citizens and permanent residents to enter.

Mr Tu'ihalangingie said the government was concerned about the risk of the virus reaching the island through aid deliveries as it is currently Covid-free: "We don't want to bring in another wave — a tsunami of Covid-19.”

He added that it is likely that foreign personnel would not be allowed to disembark aircraft and any aid delivered would need to be quarantined.

The eruption was one of the largest recorded eruptions in decades, estimated by scientists to have exerted a force equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima nuclear bombs and exploding 30 kilometres into the air and depositing ash, gas and acid rain across a swathe of the Pacific.

“Further volcanic activity cannot be ruled out,” OCHA said, adding that there is currently no working equipment in the area which could help predict such an event. 

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