Surveillance flights sent to tsunami-hit Tonga to assess damage – as ash cloud covers island

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Australia and New Zealand have dispatched surveillance flights to assess the damage in Tonga after the eruption of an underwater volcano triggered a tsunami and blanketed the Pacific island with ash.

The eruption caused internet and phone lines to go down on Saturday evening, leaving the 105,000 residents on the islands virtually uncontactable to people in other nations.

So far, there are no official reports of injuries or deaths on Tonga, but two people drowned off a beach in Peru due to unusually high waves following the eruption.

Australia’s foreign ministry and New Zealand’s military said they had each sent a surveillance flight on Monday morning to Tonga to assess the extent of the damage.

Image: This Planet SkySat image shows a plume of smoke rising from the underwater volcano before its eruption

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pledged to provide support for Tonga as early as possible but said the huge ash cloud covering the island had hampered relief efforts.

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“There’s been a lot of challenges there with the ash cloud and the disruption to communications and so we are working together to get as much support to Tonga as we possibly can,” he told radio station 2GB.

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Tidal waves hit Tonga

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said communications are limited and so contact has not been made with coastal areas beyond the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa.

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“Nuku’alofa is “covered in thick plumes of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable,” she said. “We have not yet received news from other coastal areas.”

Ms Ardern later said the main undersea communications cable was affected, most likely because of the loss of power.

Image: Satellite image taken by Himawari-8

However, she also said power was being restored in some areas on the islands and local mobile phones were slowly starting to connect to networks.

The International Federation of Red Cross said it was mobilising its regional network to respond to what it called the worst volcanic eruptions the Pacific has experienced in decades.

“From what little updates we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense, especially for outer lying islands,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s pacific head of delegation.

Image: Peruvian coastal towns were also flooded after the Tonga volcano eruption

Satellite images captured the volcanic eruption on Saturday as the explosion sent plumes of smoke into the air, triggering warnings of 1.2-metre tsunami waves and evacuation orders on several Pacific islands.

Concerns have grown among the Tongan community in New Zealand, who were desperate to make contact with their families back home.

Image: This Himawari-8 image shows plume rising over Tonga after the volcano erupted

Maikeli Atiola, the secretary of the Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Auckland, said: “We pray God will help our country at this sad moment. We hope everybody is safe.”

Sanya Ruggiero, a communications worker in the Fijian capital Suva, described how the eruption left his “entire house shaking”, despite being around 750km away from Tonga.

Image: An aerial view of boats believed to have been capsized by the tsunami

He said: “My doors, windows were all rattling like hell. And mine was not even as bad as others.

“Hundreds of people ran out of their homes.”

Mr Ruggiero added: “This is the worst disaster Tonga has had in living memory and the recovery from this is going to take years.”