“From the lack of information we have, the scale of the devastation can be enormous, especially on the most isolated islands,” said Katie Greenwood of the International Federation of the Red Cross.
The first estimates of the scale of the crisis were transmitted by phone via satellite or created thanks to reconnaissance flights over a country cut off from the Internet after a cable outage.
Her family announced that no casualties were detected, but the body of a British woman swept by the tsunami was found. According to New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which moved police on the spot, another person had also lost his life, according to the DPA news agency.
New Zealand and Australia sent reconnaissance planes over Tonga.
The capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in 2cm of ash and volcanic dust, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) described in an emergency report. Electricity has been restored in some areas of the city. The local telephone network has also been restored, but international connections are intermittent.
The tsunami also swept inland rocks and debris, damaging the Nuku’alofa waterfront.
But the agency is particularly concerned about the situation on low-lying Mango Island, where “significant property damage” was seen and where a distress signal was triggered, as well as on Funui Island.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported “significant damage” to western beaches on the main island, Tongatapu, “with many resorts and/or homes destroyed and/or severely damaged”.
The finding, endorsed by a small group of Australian police stationed in the archipelago, provided the first “fairly troubling” assessment of the West Beach area, according to Australia’s International Development Minister, Zed Sesilga.
Satellite images published by the United Nations Satellite Center (UNOSAT) showed the effects of the eruption and tsunami on the small island of Nomoka, which is one of the closest to the Hungana-Tonga-Hongga-Hapai volcano.
According to UNOSAT, 41 of the 104 buildings observed were damaged in the cloud-free zone and nearly all of them were covered in ash.
The country’s airport hopes to be able to clear its runway on Monday, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to allow Australian C-130 military aircraft to land.
The ships HMAS Adelaïde, of the Australian fleet, HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa, of the New Zealand fleet, were deployed towards Tonga three days sailing away.
Major aid agencies, which are responding quickly to provide emergency humanitarian aid, said they were stuck and unable to contact local staff.
Last week’s volcanic eruption was the largest in decades: a 30-kilometer-high plume of smoke and ash rose, immediately followed by the onset of a tsunami.
Nuku’alofa was swept by 1.2-meter waves, as residents fled to higher ground, leaving behind flooded houses with rocks and ash falling from the sky.
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