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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

New Zealand’s leader says there are signs of extensive damage in Tonga

The eruption Saturday of the underwater volcano off Tonga, as captured by a Japanese weather satellite, Himawari-8.

By Natasha Frost

A day after the volcanic eruption off Tonga’s shores, communications were still out in much of the Pacific island nation, but there were signs of significant damage from the eruption and resulting tsunami, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand said Sunday.

Ardern, whose country has close ties to Tonga, said the tsunami had had “a significant impact on the foreshore on the northern side of Nuku’alofa,” the Tongan capital, “with boats and large boulders washed ashore.”

“Shops along the coast have been damaged and a significant cleanup will be needed,” she said at a news conference.

The tsunami was caused by an eight-minute eruption of the undersea volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, located about 40 miles north of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, on which about 70% of the population live.

Contact with Tonga was still extremely limited Sunday afternoon, and communication with more remote parts of the country had not yet resumed. Ardern said official damage assessments were not yet available because of the difficulties with communication.

Nuku’alofa was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, she said, but conditions were otherwise stable and power had been restored to some of the city.

“A clear indication that has come from Tonga is a need for water,” Ardern said. “The ash cloud has, as you can imagine, caused contamination. That’s on top of already a challenging environment, in terms of water supply.”

Countries including Australia and New Zealand have offered the country aid, and a New Zealand defense force reconnaissance flight was set to deploy Monday morning, subject to conditions, including ash fall. A New Zealand navy vessel will also soon depart for the country, Ardern said.

In a post on Twitter, the United States secretary of state, Antony Blinken, offered his condolences: “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 neighbors.”

Tonga, a nation of about 105,000 people, has experienced successive natural disasters in recent years. In 2018, more than 170 homes were destroyed and two people killed by Cyclone Gita, a Category 5 tropical storm. Two years later, in 2020, Cyclone Harold caused an estimated $111 million of damage, including extensive flooding.

The country, which has reported just one case of the coronavirus, has struggled economically during the pandemic. It closed its borders in March 2020, effectively cutting off all tourism to the country, which had previously made up about 12% of its GDP.

“We stand ready to support the government and the people of Tonga,” a spokesperson for the United Nations in the Pacific said in a post on Twitter. “Unfortunately this is not over, and more eruptions and consequent tsunamis may follow.”

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