May 15, 2022 10:25 pm

Islands covered in ash and dozens of houses destroyed after Tonga volcano eruption

Until now three deaths have been confirmed, two Tongans and one British. A hundred houses have been damaged and 50 totally destroyed.

The World Health Organization of the United Nations (WHO), has reported that many people are still missing, while some 90 people went to safety in evacuation centers on the island of Eua, and many others fled to the homes of friends and relatives.

On the island of Tongatapu, where the capital is, there is damage to infrastructure, especially in coastal areas, according to the UN humanitarian coordination office (OCHA), which told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday. Medical centers are operating normally.

The agency said it is still collecting information on the extent of the destruction, and that it has not been possible to contact any of the islands in Ha’apai and Vava’u districts.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicated that the islands of Mango and Fonoi, in the district of Ha’apai, are of particular concern, practically at sea level and from which distress signals have been issued.

Reconnaissance flights reveal widespread damage to buildings, and images from the United Nations Satellite Center (UNOSAT) show that, on the small island of Nomuka, one of the closest to the Hunga Tonga Ha’apai volcano, 41 the 104 visible structures have been damaged, and almost all of them are covered with ash, although the verification of the teams on the ground is still awaited.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters on Tuesday that Tongatapu is covered in about two centimeters of dust and volcanic ash, raising fears of air, water and food contamination.

Fortunately, he added: all health facilities on the main island are fully operational, and clean-up operations have already begun.

The largest eruption in three decades

It is the largest volcanic eruption recorded in thirty years. A 20km-high mushroom cloud of ash was followed by a tsunami, and the eruption was heard as far away as Australia and New Zealand, prompting tsunami warnings across the Pacific.

Waves up to 1.2 meters high hit the capital, Nuku’alofa, sending residents fleeing to higher ground, leaving behind flooded houses, while it rained rocks and ashes from the sky.

According to the health agency, the Government of Tonga reacted quickly to the crisis by deploying a warship to the Ha’api Islands, with the help, on board, of the Tonga Emergency Medical Assistance Team, formed by the Organization World Health to assist the wounded.

The Government advises the population of Tonga to stay inside their houses, to wear masks if they have to go out and to drink bottled water to avoid the health risks derived from the ash that has fallen.

The emergency tasks are being coordinated by the Pacific Humanitarian Team, which brings together UN agencies, the Red Cross and international NGOs, to provide on-the-ground and remote assistance to the Government of Tonga.

The team’s priorities are to help restore communications, find ways to transport emergency aid and provide technical advice on issues such as ensuring the safety of the drinking water supply, which has been severely affected by volcanic ash.

Ā© New Zealand Defence Force

An image of the islands of Tonga after the ash fallout caused by the recent volcanic eruption.

The first estimates of the magnitude of the crisis have come through the WHO liaison officer in the country, Dr. Yutaro Setoya, whose satellite phone is one of the few sources of information from the island nation.

International phone and internet services remain unreliable, after an underwater communications cable was cut during the eruption. It is estimated that it will take several weeks to be repaired.

“Yutaro has literally been out in the open from dawn until late at night for the past few days to make sure the phone can catch up with the satellite signal and can transmit vital information,” said the WHO Health Cluster coordinator. for the Pacific, Sean Casey.

“All of us at WHO, and across the United Nations in general, are thinking about Tonga right now and doing what we can to support the government’s response efforts.”

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