RAAF flights ready for Tonga aid mission

Dominic Giannini |

Two Royal Australian Air Force planes are ready to depart for Tonga as soon as conditions allow, with the flights waiting for ash to be removed from the Pacific nation’s airport runway.

New Zealand Defence Minister Peeni Henare said he was informed the Tongans were redoubling their efforts to clear the runway and have it operational by midday to early afternoon on Thursday. 

Mr Henare said locals were removing the dust by hand because small equipment had been destroyed or can’t be used.

“I’ve been told it is human power that is sweeping clear the debris and the ash off the runway at the moment,” he told the ABC.

“My understanding is that, with respect to the airport, the ash cover is significant, but not overwhelming.”

One unconfirmed New Zealand defence report said the ash was up to a metre deep in some places, Mr Henare said.

“The most stark description that was given to me in the briefing from the defence force was the lack of colour,” he said.

“You imagine Pacific Islands, the tropical nature of the place and the bright colour of the sands and beaches. It’s all very grey and dull because of the ash that just blankets the entire land.” 

Australia’s HMAS Adelaide is preparing for deployment after arriving in Brisbane on Wednesday and has been loaded with humanitarian and disaster relief supplies, along with critical equipment to help recovery efforts.

It’s expected the voyage to Tonga will take five days, and the ship will serve as a base for relief work.

The extent of the devastation wrought by the eruption of an underground volcano and subsequent tsunami on the Pacific nation is yet to be fully realised with communication systems down.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison managed to speak with his counterpart Siaosi Sovaleni on Wednesday afternoon and said Australia’s priority remained delivering assistance in a COVID-free manner.

“I reassured him that Australia stands shoulder to shoulder with the Kingdom of Tonga as it responds to the undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami,” Mr Morrison said.

“I conveyed Australia’s deep sadness for the loss of life and the damage caused by the disaster, and wished those injured a speedy recovery.”

Australia and New Zealand have sent flights to survey the damage, revealing knocked over shipping containers at Tonga’s Nuku port and volcanic ash covering houses and the runway at Ha’apai airport.

Tonga has also approved the arrival of HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa which departed New Zealand on Tuesday and are expected to arrive on Friday.

Mr Morrison said the Australian High Commission in Nuku’alofa is in close contact with the Tongan government “to ensure our relief efforts best meet the country’s immediate needs”.

“The government is also engaged with the many Tongans living in Australia to provide information and support,” he said.

Power has been restored but communication in and out of the country remains difficult after a key underwater cable was damaged.

New Zealand’s foreign ministry says US cable company SubCom advises it will take up to a month to repair the damaged cable.

Telstra is working with Digicel Pacific to find a satellite communications solution while the Australian mission will also help repair the damaged underwater telecommunication cables and set up a temporary satellite system.