New Zealand warns Tonga of further eruptions and tsunamis

A massive volcanic eruption and tsunami near Tonga caused “an unprecedented disaster,” the Pacific nation’s leader said Tuesday, as New Zealand warned of further eruptions that may complicate the delivery of aid to remote islands where communications are down.

In its first official update since Saturday’s eruption of the underwater Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, Tonga’s government on Tuesday confirmed the deaths of three people and several other injuries, and outlined the scale of destruction to communities.

Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said all houses on the island of Mango, where 36 people live, were destroyed. Only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, and extensive damage was reported on Nomuka island, home to 239 people, he said.

“An unprecedented disaster hit Tonga,” Sovaleni said, adding a “volcanic mushroom plume” extended to cover all of the country’s roughly 170 islands, of which 36 are inhabited impacting the entire population of more than 100,000 people.

According to experts, the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano was likely the biggest volcanic event recorded since Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.

On Tuesday, New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry warned further eruptions of the volcano were likely, posing a tsunami risk.

The estimation was based on modeling by GNS Science, a New Zealand geological research institute, the ministry said. “The most likely scenario is for ongoing eruptions in the next several days to weeks, with ongoing tsunami risk to Tonga and New Zealand,” it said.

The eruption on Saturday generated tsunami waves up to 49 feet (15 meters) high that hit the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, and the ‘Eua and Ha’api islands.

A United Nations spokesperson said an initial assessment by Tongan authorities found 100 houses were damaged and 50 destroyed on Tongatapu, the country’s main island, home to the majority of the population. No evacuation centers are open on the main island, and people who were displaced are mostly staying with extended families.

On ‘Eua, 89 people are in evacuation centers, the spokesperson said, adding that information from outer islands remains scarce.

With cleanup efforts underway, rescue workers are racing to deliver safe drinking water to the island nation as it grapples with the shortages.

“Securing access to safe drinking water is a critical immediate priority,” said Katie Greenwood, the Pacific Head of Delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, pointing to the mounting risk of diarrhea and diseases such as cholera.

Tonga’s communication systems remain severely limited after damage to a key undersea cable cut international and inter-island calls, New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

According to the ministry, an international mobile network provider has set up an interim system on Tongatapu using a satellite dish, which could restore 2G connections. But this “will be limited and patchy,” the ministry said.