Has Tonga been destroyed? World concerned as communications down after eruption

'Scale of the devastation could be immense,' notes Red Cross member as communications are still down, leaving friends and family in the dark


                            Has Tonga been destroyed? World concerned as communications down after eruption
Tonga Geological Services observe the volcanic eruption (Tonga Geological Services)
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The whole world is currently on edge after a massive volcanic eruption in the Pacific island nation of Tonga has left the country uncontactable. According to the latest reports, efforts to reach family and friends in the many islands that form the nation have met with failure, as the eruption has taken down internet and phone lines. Worryingly, a second eruption was recorded in the early hours of January 17, and some experts fear it may not be the last.

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The tiny island nation made international headlines at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, not for its medal tally, but its flag bearer Pita Taufatofua. Since then, it's largely fallen out of the news until the massive eruption on January 15. It left not just Tonga, but parts of Australia, Chile, and even the US West Coast facing tidal waves. Shortly after the eruption, social media footage shows houses being flooded and destroyed by the resulting tsunamis

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With Tonga now cut off from the rest of the world, Australia and New Zealand are attempting to understand the full extent of the damage. The two nations have sent surveillance flights to the area, but it's unclear how bad Tonga has been affected with communications still down.

The volcanic eruptions on Tonga. (Laviniah Tupou via Twitter)

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Damage to Tonga 'could be immense'

Social media footage taken on January 15 before the blackout shows people running for higher ground as massive waves ravage the shore, and water made its way deep inland. Since then, communications have been down leaving the world clueless, until Australia and New Zealand's surveillance flights were finally able to take off on January 17. There is also extensive satellite imagery, showcasing the effects of the volcanic eruption. 

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One image, taken shortly before the eruption shows the creation of a new island in the chain, thanks to the volcano. Reportedly, it is the second time this has happened within a decade. Images also show that the uninhabited Nuku and Tau islands are completely eroded. While the exact damage sustained has not been reported, the New Zealand high commission in Nuku'alofa, the Tongan capital said the tsunami has "damaged boats, shops, and other infrastructure." One Tongan tweeted that "Settlements along Vuna Road from Sopu to Fasi & Maufanga heavily damaged." 

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One Red Cross member told The Guardian, "From what little updates we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense, especially for outer lying islands." New Zealand's Prime Minster Jessica Ardern said the situation was "hugely concerning" and announced around $340,000 was available in immediate aid. Internet and electricity are now slowly coming back online, and the surveillance flights should tell nations what the next steps will be.

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Sanya Ruggiero, based in Fiji is quoted by The Daily Mail as saying, "This is the worst disaster Tonga has had in living memory and the recovery from this is going to take years." The biggest challenge for the nation won't just be the recovery of physical infrastructure, but also the challenges of Covid-19. Thanks to its remote location, Tonga remains one of the very few nations to not suffer from massive case numbers, but as international aid swarms in, that status could be challenged.

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The next steps have not yet been discussed, but it's clear there's a lot of work to be done. Thankfully, it appears as if most Tongans have survived the eruption and tsunami, but their health and wellbeing are now under the scanner with the thick plume of smoke, and the status of food, water, and medicinal supplies not known. 

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