Tonga awaits further volcanic eruption

Dominic Giannini and Andrew Brown |

A Royal Australian Air Force P-8 aircraft will make a surveillance flight to assess damage in Tonga.
A Royal Australian Air Force P-8 aircraft will make a surveillance flight to assess damage in Tonga.

Australian support remains on standby amid concerns an underwater volcano that erupted in Tonga and sparked a tsunami is likely to erupt again in coming days. 

The Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano forms part of the “Pacific ring of fire” volcanoes which are explosive and expected to create powerful eruptions.

“The volcano is likely to erupt further in coming days but without data from the volcano it is not possible to predict or even speculate how explosive these eruptions are going to be,” geochemist Oliver Nebel from Monash University said.

The extent of the devastation in Tonga remains unclear with communications to the country largely cut following the tsunami.

Desperate family members across the world have been left in limbo, not knowing if their loved ones are safe.

The Red Cross has estimated as many as 80,000 people may have been impacted, although there have been no reports of injuries so far.

The head of the Red Cross’ Pacific delegation said trained Tonga teams would be on the ground supporting evacuations in coordination, providing first aid and distributing relief supplies.

Katie Greenwood said local Red Cross teams are well placed to respond quickly to emergencies like this as the organisation continues to work hard to establish contact with colleagues in the country.

“Red Cross currently has enough relief supplies in the country to support 1200 households with essential items such as tarpaulins, blankets, kitchen sets, shelter tool kits and hygiene kits,” she said.

“There are fears that communities may not have access to safe and clean drinking water (and) shelter is also a concern, particularly for those communities near the coast line.”

Managers of Ha’atafu Beach Resort on the main island of Tongatapu wrote on Facebook the tourist facility had been “completely wiped out”.

“The whole western coastline has been completely destroyed along with Kanukupolu village,” the wrote.

All Australians and other officials in Tonga have been accounted for.

Pacific Minister Zed Seselja said while there were reports of significant property damage in Tonga, there have been no reports of casualties.

“There is still very limited, if any, information coming from the outer islands, and so that will be the focus in coming hours,” Senator Seselja told ABC TV.

Senator Seselja said more support measures were being prepared and ready to go, including a C-130 plane with humanitarian supplies.

HMAS Adelaide, currently in Sydney, is being deployed to Brisbane where it will be loaded with supplies for Tonga.

He said there were some predeployed emergency supplies in Tonga.

Australia has already sent a P-8 plane to assess the damage following the natural disaster on Saturday.

But Tonga’s strict quarantine measures designed to keep COVID-19 out of the country are complicating relief efforts.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Tonga had not requested an Australian medical assistance team following the natural disaster.

“It is a COVID-free country as far as I’m aware and that does complicate the movement of people as well,” Senator Payne told reporters.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been just one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Tonga.

Ash from the volcano is also causing disruptions to flights in the region. 

An Aircalin flight from Narita in Japan to La Tontouta in New Caledonia was diverted to Brisbane overnight due to the volcanic disruption.

All passengers and crew from the flight spent the night in quarantine hotels, with a new flight time yet to be set.

Two Fiji Airways flights from Brisbane to Nadi were also cancelled on Monday due to the volcanic cloud.

It also also led to delays for flights to Townsville from Brisbane and Sydney.