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A Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidon aircraft departs RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland to assess the damage to Tonga after the eruption of an underwater volcano triggered a tsunami and blanketed the Pacific island with ash on January 17, 2022. Picture: AUSTRALIAN DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE via REUTERS
A Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidon aircraft departs RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland to assess the damage to Tonga after the eruption of an underwater volcano triggered a tsunami and blanketed the Pacific island with ash on January 17, 2022. Picture: AUSTRALIAN DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE via REUTERS

Sydney/Wellington — Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights on Monday to assess damage in Tonga, isolated from the rest of the world after the eruption of a volcano that triggered a tsunami and blanketed the Pacific island with ash.

Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said initial reports suggest no mass casualties from Saturday's eruption and tsunami but Australian police have visited beaches and reported significant damage with “houses thrown about”.

“We know there is some significant damage, and know there is significant damage to resorts,” he said in an interview with an Australian radio station, adding that Tonga's airport appear to be in relatively good condition.

One British woman is reported missing, he said.

Tonga's deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu'ihalangingie, said the surveillance flights are expected to return on Monday evening. He asked for patience as Tonga's government decides its priorities for aid.

Tonga is concerned about the risk of aid deliveries spreading Covid-19 to the island, which is Covid-19-free.

“We don't want to bring in another wave — a tsunami of Covid-19,” he said.

“When people see such a huge explosion they want to help,” he said, but added Tonga diplomats are also concerned by some private fundraising efforts and urged the public to wait until a disaster relief fund is announced.

Any aid delivered to Tonga would need to be quarantined, and it is likely that no foreign personnel will be allowed to disembark aircraft, he said.

The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano triggered a tsunami on the shores of Tonga and cut off phone and internet lines for the entire island.

International communication has been severely hampered by damage to an undersea cable, which could take more than a week to restore, he said. Tonga's cabinet is meeting to decide what help is most urgently needed.

Telephone networks in Tonga have been restored but ash is posing a major health concern, contaminating drinking water.

“Most people are not aware the ash is toxic and bad for them to breathe [in] and they have to wear a mask,” Tu'ihalangingie said.

The Ha’atafu Beach Resort, on the Hihifo peninsula, 21km west of the capital Nuku’alofa, is “completely wiped out”, the owners said on Facebook.

The family that manages the resort had run for their lives through the bush to escape the tsunami, it said. “The whole western coastline has been completely destroyed along with Kanukupolu village,” the resort said.

British woman Angela Glover is missing after she was washed away by a wave when she and her husband, James, who own the Happy Sailor Tattoo in Nuku'alofa, had gone to get their dogs.

The husband managed to hold onto a tree but his wife, who runs a dog rescue shelter, and their dogs were swept away, New Zealand state broadcaster TVNZ reported.

The Red Cross said it is mobilising its regional network to respond to what it called the worst volcanic eruption the Pacific has experienced in decades.

Katie Greenwood, the Pacific head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said up to 80,000 people could have been affected by the tsunami.

Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai has erupted regularly over the past few decades but the affect of Saturday's eruption was felt as far away as Fiji, New Zealand, the US and Japan. Two people drowned off a beach in Northern Peru due to high waves caused by the tsunami.

More than a day after the eruption, countries thousands of kilometres to the west have volcanic ash clouds over them, New Zealand forecaster WeatherWatch said.

Early data suggests the eruption was the biggest blast since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines 30 years ago, New Zealand-based volcanologist Shane Cronin told Radio New Zealand.

“This is an eruption best witnessed from space,” Cronin said.

Reuters

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