After Tonga's Massive Eruption, 'Very Good News'

'Catastrophic' disaster was apparently averted, though at least 2 have died and ash is everywhere
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 18, 2022 8:07 AM CST
After Tonga's Massive Eruption, 'Very Good News'
This satellite image shows a closer view of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano in Tonga on Jan. 6, 2022, before a huge undersea volcanic eruption.   (Satellite image Maxar Technologies via AP)

The blast from the volcano could be heard in Alaska, and the waves crossed the ocean to cause an oil spill and two drownings in Peru. The startling satellite images resembled a massive nuclear explosion. And yet, despite sitting almost on top of the volcano that erupted so violently on Saturday, the Pacific nation of Tonga appears to have avoided the widespread disaster that many initially feared, reports the AP. Perhaps the biggest problem is the ash that has coated the main island and transformed it into a gray moonscape, contaminating the rainwater that people rely on to drink. New Zealand's military is sending fresh water and other much-needed supplies, but it said Tuesday the ash covering Tonga's main runway will delay the flight at least another day.

Tonga has so far reported two deaths, and concerns remain over the fate of people on two smaller islands that were hard hit. Communications have been down everywhere, making assessments more difficult. But on the main island of Tongatapu, at least, life is slowly returning to normal. The tsunami that swept over coastal areas after the eruption was frightening for many but rose only about 2.7 feet, allowing most to escape. "We did hold grave fears, given the magnitude of what we saw in that unprecedented blast," said Katie Greenwood, the head of delegation in the Pacific for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "Fortunately, in those major population centers we are not seeing the catastrophic effect we thought might happen, and that's very good news."

Greenwood, who's based in Fiji and has been talking with people in Tonga by satellite phone, said an estimated 50 homes were destroyed on Tongatapu but that nobody needed to use emergency shelters. She said about 90 people on the nearby island of 'Eua were using shelters. UN humanitarian officials and Tonga's government have reported "significant infrastructural damage" around Tongatapu. New Zealand's High Commission in Tonga also reported significant damage along the western coast of Tongatapu, including to resorts and the waterfront area.

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Like other island nations in the Pacific, Tonga is regularly exposed to the extremes of nature, whether it be cyclones or earthquakes, making people more resilient to the challenges they bring. Indeed, Greenwood said Tonga doesn't want an influx of aid workers following the eruption. Tonga is one of the few remaining places in the world that has managed to avoid any outbreaks of the coronavirus, and officials fear that if outsiders bring in the virus it could create a much bigger disaster than the one they're already facing. Another worry, said Greenwood, is that the volcano could erupt again. She said there's currently no working equipment around it which could help predict such an event.

(More Tonga stories.)

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