Tonga accepts Australian offer of surveillance flight following tsunami

By Melissa Coade

Monday January 17, 2022

Tonga volcano
An undersea volcano eruption at the Pacific nation of Tonga Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (NICT via AP)

The Australian Defence Force has sent a Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft to Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano at the weekend.

The surveillance flight will assess damage of critical infrastructure such as roads, ports and power lines on the Pacific Island, which has been blanketed in volcanic ash and flooded towns on Saturday.

According to the US Geological Survey, the eruption is estimated as having triggered a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, resulting in tsunami warnings for the US Pacific Coast, Hawaii, Alaska and Japan.

The Bureau of Meterology also issued a tsunami warning for parts of the east coast, as well as Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island and Macquarie Islands.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, minister for international development and the Pacific Zed Seselja, and defence minister Peter Dutton said in a statement that the aircraft was scheduled to depart for Tonga on Monday. The flight’s surveillance will help the government of Tonga determine the next phase of the response effort.

“Australia will work in partnership with other Pacific neighbours, including New Zealand, to support Tonga in a COVID-safe way,” the joint statement said.

“While communications remain limited we are continuing to receive regular updates through our High Commission in Tonga, with early reports of substantial ash coverage around Nuku’alofa and coastal inundation and damage to infrastructure.”

The cabinet of Tonga’s government convened a crisis meeting on Sunday and formally requested assistance from Australia.

The latest reports suggest that the villages of Kanokupolu, ‘Ahau and Fo’ui in the low lying area of Hihifo have been heavily damaged, with residents forced out of their homes. The search for one of three people who were swept away in the area continues.

Payne, Seselja and Dutton added that Australia was ready to respond to critical humanitarian supplies for disaster relief and any other requests for help. 

“DFAT is seeking to confirm the welfare of Australians, permanent residents and their families. Communications outages are currently making it difficult to contact people,” they said.

“Tonga is part of our Pacific family and both the thoughts and the prayers of Australians are with the entire nation, which has been impacted by this natural disaster.”

DFAT has also advised those who are concerned about Australian citizens presently in Tonga to call 1300 555 135 or +61 2 6261 3305.

On Sunday, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden confirmed communication was down across Tonga in the 48 hours since Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted underwater. The main undersea communications cable is suspected as being affected by the eruption, and Arden confirmed power was being restored in some parts of the country.

“Nuku‘alofa is covered in thick plumes of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable,” Ardern said. 

“We have not yet received news from other coastal areas.”

Twitter users have shared unofficial reports that electricity has now returned across many areas in Tonga, with Tongan prime minister Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa sending an address to the nation from one of the two radio stations still in operation.


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