New Zealand and Australian aid planes and ships are due to arrive in Tonga carrying much-needed supplies for the disaster-struck nation.
Hundreds of workers have cleared a thick layer of volcanic ash covering the runway at Tonga’s main airport. Saturday’s eruption of an undersea volcano and tsunami waves have killed at least three and cut communications.
The ash has blanketed the islands, posing a serious health risk, and contaminated water supplies. Efforts to remove ash at the airport in the capital Nuku’alofa finished on Wednesday, after rescue teams and volunteers desperately worked to clear the tarmac using wheelbarrows and shovels.
New Zealand said its aid response was now “well underway”, with both the first of its planes and ships to arrive on Thursday. A C-130 Hercules plane is due to touch down in Tonga at 16:00 local time (03:00 GMT). It is loaded with water containers, temporary shelter kits, electricity generators, hygiene and family kits and communications equipment.
Australia’s military said that its aid planes would touch down in Tonga later on Thursday, also carrying water, food and communications equipment. Tongan authorities have requested that aid drops be near contactless, to prevent the risk of Covid-19 spreading to the island which has seen just one case of the virus so far in the pandemic. New Zealand’s Defence Minister Peeni Henare confirmed the delivery would be contactless.
“The aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” he said. A New Zealand naval ship is also due to arrive in Tonga on Thursday, ahead of other supply ships. Authorities said HMNZS Wellington’s first task was to scope out “shipping channels and wharf approaches to Tonga’s port to ensure vehicles can go alongside [it].”
Mr Henare earlier told the BBC the supply ships would bring more than 250,000 litres of fresh water and desalination equipment, used to separate salt from water. “The most pressing matter that’s come through from the Tongan government is the need for fresh water,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the heavily Mormon nation says it has been providing significant shelter and clean water supplies to locals in the past days.
About 1,000 people had been sheltering at the Church’s largest school each night this past week. Contact with Tonga remains limited. A 2G connection has been restored by a telecommunications provider Digicel but the line is being overwhelmed by the demand.
The main severed undersea cable connecting the remote island nation to the outside world may also take weeks to fix. Recently released pictures from Tonga’s consulate in the European Union, have shown the extent of the damage including cars, roads and buildings in Nuku’alofa coated in a film of ash.
The images also show the aftermath of the tsunami waves, described by Tonga’s government as “an unprecedented disaster”, on coastal areas on the island Tongatapu. Debris is scattered across the shoreline, after waves more than a meter tall struck on Tonga. Aerial images taken by the New Zealand Air Force, meanwhile, indicate that several villages have been wiped out on islands that have yet to be reached.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano was felt as far away as the US. In Peru, two people drowned in abnormally high waves while beaches near the capital Lima were closed off following an oil spill.