Australia and New Zealand send surveillance flights to assess damage from Tonga volcano eruption

The toll from the eruption of a huge undersea volcano in Tonga remains unclear with Australia and New Zealand sending surveillance flights to assess the damage.

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday prompted tsunami warnings and evacuation orders in neighbouring countries and caused huge waves on several South Pacific islands, where images on social media showed waves crashing against homes on the shores.

The eruption cut the internet to Tonga, leaving friends and family members around the world anxiously trying to get in touch to find out if there were any injuries.

Even government websites and other official sources remained without updates on Sunday afternoon.

The NZ Defence Force tweeted that an Orion aircraft left Auckland on Monday morning to assist in an initial impact assessment of the area and low-lying islands.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said the Royal Australian Air Force “were undertaking surveillance activity over the affected area”.

A surveillance plane and a C130 earlier took off from RAAF Base at Amberley in Queensland headed for Tonga.

Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said Tonga’s contact with the rest of the world had been disrupted by damage to an undersea cable.

“My understanding is that communications within Tonga are to some extent operating,” he said.

“It’s the international communications through the cable that was affected that is causing some difficulties.”

He said Australia was preparing to send a significant amount of humanitarian aid and the HMAS Adelaide would likely also be deployed.

The Tongan High Commission in Australia deputy head of mission, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, said there had been no confirmed deaths so far.

Mr Tu’ihalangingie said they were sourcing their information through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“So far, we receive it’s minimal damage to just the coastal site of the capital, and some parts of Tonga, the main island of Tongatapu, and so far we have not received a report of any death,” he said.

However, authorities have not yet made contact with some coastal areas and smaller islands.

Mr Tu’ihalangingie said it was hoped communication would be restored with Tonga some time this week.

UK woman Angela Glover, who owns Happy Sailor Tattoo in Nuku’alofa with her husband, was reported to be missing after being swept away in the tsunami.

Ms Glover was out with her husband when she was hit by the waves.

Several social media posts from family and friends said she had still not been found.

Queensland’s Bureau of Meteorology tweeted that the ash cloud from the eruption had reached Australia and may be resulting in “particularly stunning sunrises” in Queensland.

On Sunday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

The Fiji-based Islands Business news site reported that a convoy of police and military troops evacuated Tonga’s King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore.

n a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.

“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said.

“I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.”

Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.

Ms Ardern said New Zealand was unable to send a surveillance flight over Tonga on Sunday because the ash cloud was 19,000 metres high.

One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19.

Ms Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.

Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Centre in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary”.

The tsunami waves caused damage to boats as far away as New Zealand and Santa Cruz, California, but did not appear to cause any widespread damage.

Tsunami advisories were earlier issued for Japan, Hawaii, Alaska and the US Pacific coast.

The US Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes were relatively rare.

Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano.

She said she had not yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.

“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter he was “deeply concerned for the people of Tonga as they recover from the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and tsunami. The United States stands prepared to provide support to our Pacific neighbours.”

Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji.

All internet connectivity with Tonga was lost about 6:40pm (local time) Saturday, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.

On Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas and swirling around homes, a church and other buildings.

A Twitter user identified as Dr Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted video showing waves crashing ashore.

“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometres north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions.

In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.