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Friday, May 20, 2022

First human flights land in Tonga amid destruction from volcanic ash, tsunami

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The first humanitarian flights arrived in volcano and tsunami-stricken Tonga on Thursday, five days after the twin disaster cut off the Pacific Empire from the rest of the world.

Tonga has been inaccessible since Saturday, when one of the largest volcanic eruptions in decades engulfed the country in a layer of ash, triggering a Pacific-wide tsunami and breaking vital underwater communication cables.

Two large military transport planes from Australia and New Zealand landed at Tonga’s main airport – recently after a painstaking effort to remove a thick layer of ash.

“Landed!” Australia’s Minister of International Development and the Pacific, Jade Cesselja, hailed the C-17’s arrival as “much needed humanitarian supplies”.

“The second C-17 is about to arrive,” he said.

The equipment on board was called a “skid-steer loader with sweeper” to help keep the runway clear of ash.

New Zealand confirmed that its C-130 Hercules had also landed.

“The plane is carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief materials, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, sanitation and family kits, and communication equipment,” New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Naniya Mahuta said.

The United Nations estimates that more than 80 percent of the archipelago’s population of 100,000 have been affected by the disaster and preliminary assessments indicate an urgent need for drinking water.

The first splash of images emerging from Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, shows ash buildings, crumbling walls and streets lined with boulders, tree trunks and other debris.

Tongans worked for several days trying to clear the runway at the airport of ash to provide much-needed assistance.

Work was progressing very slowly, with only a few hundred meters being cleaned every day.

The air bridge is now open, nations are rushing to get aid.

Japan has announced that it will send two C-130 aircraft, and countries from China to France have indicated that they will also provide assistance.

But the strict COVID protocols that have kept Tonga virtually virus-free mean the delivery of supplies will be “contactless”.

New Zealand Commander James Gilmour said: “There will be no contact between the New Zealand Defense Force and anyone on the ground.”

The crew was expected to be on the ground for only 90 minutes.

‘Unprecedented disaster’

Three people were killed when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haapai volcano erupted on Saturday, triggering a tsunami that flooded homes and caused widespread flooding.

Waves up to 15 meters (50 ft) high are reported to have destroyed almost every house on some of the outlying islands.

The Tongan government called the double blast-tsunami “an unprecedented disaster” and declared a national emergency of nearly a month.

When the underwater caldera exploded, it threw 30 kilometers (19 mi) of debris into the air and deposited ash and acid rain in the kingdom of 170 islands – poisoning the water supply.

“The water supply in Tonga has been severely affected by ash and salt water from the tsunami,” said Katie Greenwood of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

There are also fears for the island’s food supply, with Fatfehi Fakafanua, the president of a tearful national assembly, saying that “all agriculture is ruined”.

ship to arrive

Australia and New Zealand are also sending aid by sea, with Royal New Zealand Navy ships HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa expected to arrive in Tongan waters on Friday.

They are carrying water supplies and a 70,000-liter-a-day desalination plant, as well as naval hydrographic and dive personnel to survey shipping channels.

The Australian military relief ship HMAS Adelaide also stands in Brisbane. An Australian official said it is Canberra’s “hope and intention” that the ship will leave for the island kingdom on Friday.

HMAS Adelaide will carry “water purification equipment and additional humanitarian supplies” as well as two Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.

New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research said the explosion released a pressure wave that crossed the planet, traveling at supersonic speeds of about 1,230 kilometers per hour.

It broke a vital underwater communication cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world, leaving Tongans scrambling to contact their loved ones abroad.

Partial communication was restored on Wednesday, with mobile phone network provider Digicel saying the high number of calls to the island was causing delays.

It is expected to take at least a month for the underwater cable connection to be fully restored.

(AFP)

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