May 24, 2022

The Tonga islands still cut off from the world, three days after the volcanic eruption

It took four days for the first aerial photos to give an overview of the double disaster that struck the Tonga Islands on Saturday January 15, when the violent eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano caused a tsunami. Pictures, ash color, published Tuesday, which reveal terrible material damage but offer little information on the population, just over 100,000 people, still almost cut off from the world. Only a few rare exchanges by satellite telephone take place.

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“It’s terribly distressing to have no news of your loved ones. I don’t know where my father is, where my cousins ​​are. I spend my days trying to understand the situation on social networks. My family didn’t realize how dangerous this volcano was.”, testifies Uelenitoni Tu’ulakitau, a lawyer of Tongan origin living in Australia, the white voice. All telephone and Internet communications were interrupted shortly after the eruption. The submarine cable that linked the archipelago to the rest of the planet, via Fiji, was damaged. Its repair could take several weeks while the internal connections have been partially restored.

A provisional report on Wednesday reported three dead, including a 50-year-old Briton, dragged down by the waters after trying to save the dogs from her shelter. If it is still likely to worsen, the toll could have been much heavier. In recent days, concern has been particularly acute for the villagers of the Ha’apai region, living only a few tens of kilometers from the volcano, on low-lying islets. Tuesday evening, in a very first press release, the Tongan government indicated that limited contacts had been established and that the first rescue teams, carrying water, food and tents, had been dispatched to the scene. , by boat, especially on the islands of Mango and Fonoifua where about a hundred people live. In Mango, all the houses were swept away by the waves. In Fonoifua, they were only two left standing. Evacuation operations have begun.

Thick layer of ash

The extent of the damage was revealed on Tuesday, by aerial images taken by Unosat, the United Nations satellite center, and military reconnaissance planes sent Monday by Canberra and Wellington. In these shots, houses, beaches and even vegetation are covered in a thick layer of ash. The colors of paradise have flown away. Everything took on sepia tones. The island of Tongatapu, where the capital Nuku’alofa is located, just 65 km south of the volcano, also suffered extensive damage. On the west coast, the water swallowed houses and tourist structures. Roads are impassable. The airport runways were buried under a rain of ash and rocks. Clearing work is in progress. An essential step for international aid to finally reach the population.

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