Sydney, Australia/Wellington, New Zealand

All the homes on one of Tonga's small outer islands have been destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, with three people so far confirmed dead, the government said on Tuesday in its first update since the disaster struck.

With communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of the devastation after Saturday's eruption had so far mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.

But the office of Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said in a statement that every home on Mango island, where around 50 people live, had been destroyed, only two houses remained on Fonoifua, and Namuka island had suffered extensive damage. 

Tonga volcano satellite image

A satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano after its main eruption, in Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai, Tonga, on 18th January. PICTURE: Satellite Image 2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, earlier said pictures taken by the New Zealand Defence Force showed "alarming" scenes of a village destroyed on Mango and buildings missing on Atata island, which is closer to the volcano.

"People panic, people run and get injuries. Possibly there will be more deaths and we just pray that is not the case," Tu’ihalangingie told Reuters.


"The worst fear is always that you're not going to see the people that you love again," says Seini Taumoepeau, a Tongan-Australian artist and activist based in Sydney, as she waits to hear from her family after Tonga's volcanic eruption and tsunami.

"The worst fear is the suffering of other people, that's hard to cope with. Probably even more than your own suffering," Taumoepeau says as she holds back tears. 

Taumoepeau, who was born in Australia but spent part of her childhood in Tonga, said she has "hundreds of close and extended family members" across villages and towns in the Pacific archipelago, but stresses that all Tongans feel a kinship with each other. 

"Our ability to empathise with each other is quite massive," she said. "When somebody else loses a parent, we all feel it."

Taumoepeau returned to Australia when she was eight but travels to Tonga every two years to visit her relatives. She has yet to have contact with any of them since the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano erupted, which damaged the island nation's main undersea communications cable.

With telephone and internet links severed, relatives in Australia and New Zealand are praying for their families.

"At the moment we've had no contact at all with anyone from Tonga since...before the volcano had hit and then everything went dark," said Taumoepeau.

Seeing footage of the destruction to the island being broadcast around the world has added to the sense of disbelief. 

"It kind of comes to life right in front of your eyes, and especially being able to have satellite footage and that kind of thing, it's really quite, almost a disembodying feeling."

Tonga's small outer islands suffered extensive damage from the volcanic eruption and tsunami, with an entire village destroyed and many buildings missing, a Tongan diplomat said on Tuesday, raising fears of more deaths and injuries.

- Sydney, Australia/Reuters.

Sovaleni's office said a 65-year-old woman on Mango and a 49-year-old man on Nomuka island had been killed, in addition to the British national whose body was found on Monday. A number of injuries were also reported.

Tsunami waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the Ha’apia island group, where Mango is located, and the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the office said. Residents were being moved to evacuation centres as 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.

Atata and Mango are between about 50 nd 70 kilometres from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean when it erupted with a blast heard 2,300 kilometres away in New Zealand.

Ash cover
Satellite images from Sunday show the caldera of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai has collapsed and the island has lost a substantial percentage of its initial surface area, said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

A rescue operation began on Sunday for Atata, which has a population of about 100 people, with an evacuation under way.

"Challenges to sea and air transportation remain due to damage sustained by the wharves and the ash that is covering the runways," the PM's office said.

A thick layer of ash blankets the islands, the aerial images provided to Tonga by New Zealand and Australia showed.

The archipelago's main Fua’amotu International Airport was not damaged but the ash was having to be manually cleared from the runway, with the earliest opening being on Wednesday, the OCHA said.

As well as the damage locally, scientists say the eruption could have a long lasting impact on coral reefs, coastlines and fisheries in the wider region, as well as causing acid rain.

Parts of Peru's coast were dirtied by oil spilled from a discharge ship rocked by waves caused by the eruption, Peruvian Environment Minister Ruben Ramirez said. 

Clean water sources remain a concern and Tonga's government has advised people to drink only bottled water as sources may be contaminated with ash, debris and the sea, the OCHA said.

The Tongan navy has deployed with health teams and water, food and tents to the Ha'apai islands, with more aid sent on Tuesday, the Prime Minister's office said.

The NZDF images, posted on Facebook and confirmed by Tu’ihalangingie, showed tarpaulins being used as shelter on Mango, one of the kingdom's 176 islands.

Tonga Nomuka ash

A general view from a New Zealand Defence Force P-3K2 Orion surveillance flight shows ash covered homes and vegetation over Nomuka in Tonga after the Pacific island nation was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive undersea volcanic eruption on 17th January. PICTURE: New Zealand Defence Force/Handout via Reuters.

Undersea cable
Tonga is expected to issue formal requests for aid soon but in the meantime New Zealand said two ships, HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa, had set off with water supplies, survey teams and a helicopter. UN teams are on standby, the OCHA said.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said C-130 aircraft from Australia could deliver humanitarian assistance including water purification kits, while the HMAS Adelaide, which would take five days to get to Tonga, was ready to take engineering and medical teams and helicopter support.

The PM's office said some limited communications had been made with satellite phones, but some areas remained cut off.

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For families waiting for news, the silence was deafening. "The worst fear is always that you're not going to see the people that you love again," said Seini Taumoepeau, a Tongan-Australian in Sydney who has relatives across the islands.

International mobile phone network provider Digicel has set up an interim system on the main island using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish, New Zealand said. 

Subcom, a US based private company contracted to repair subsea cables in the Asia-Pacific, said it was working with Tonga Cable Ltd to repair the link that runs from Tonga to Fiji. 

Samiuela Fonua, the chair of Tonga Cable, said there were two cuts in the undersea cable that would not be fixed until volcanic activity ceased, allowing repair crews access.