Tsunami from Tonga volcano eruption leaves trail of flood damage

Waves rush over island country while tidal surges are felt by small Pacific neighbours plus New Zealand, Australia, US and Japan

Tsunami waves caused by an undersea volcano have flooded the Pacific Island country of Tonga, where entire towns have been inundated with water and scientists warn the main island could be blanketed in volcanic ash.

Videos shared on social media after the eruption showed people running for higher ground as the one metre high floods hit coastal areas and made their way farther inland while the sky darkened with ash.

There were no official reports of injuries or deaths by Monday morning, with communications limited.

Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, told a news conference on Sunday that contact had not been established with coastal areas beyond the capital, Nuku’alofa. “Nuku’alofa is covered in thick plumes of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable,” Ardern said. “We have not yet received news from other coastal areas,” she said.

Ardern said the main undersea communications cable was affected, likely due to loss of power. Power was being restored in some areas on the islands and local mobile phones were slowly starting to work, she added. The New Zealand high commission in Nuku’alofa had said the tsunami has damaged boats, shops and other infrastructure.

As the tsunami struck on Saturday, a video shot from the roof of a building on the coast showed large waves breaching the coastal wall seconds apart, while a video shot from the New Zealand high commission in Nuku’alofa, where people ran for shelter, showed the downtown area of Patangata had been completely submerged, including the Royal Palace and Tonga’s largest bank.

Another video, shot inside a church, showed children crying out as water surrounded the building and waves begin lapping up against the windows. In a video posted to YouTube after the eruption, Abraham Leilua begins by telling his followers that “it’s not that bad” but within minutes, as the water rises, saying: “I have to run for my life” before ending the video.

Blake Smith-Tatafu, a Tongan-Australian based in Australia, said they were praying and in fear. “If you don’t know, the island of Tonga is flat. This leaves their people with nowhere of realistic safety to evacuate. Villages completely underwater. We haven’t had contact for hours now. This is a crisis,” he said.

Pita Taufatoua, a Tongan Olympian based in Australia, said he had not heard from his father or family in Ha’apai, the lowest lying islands in Tonga.

Stay safe everyone 🇹🇴 pic.twitter.com/OhrrxJmXAW

— Dr Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau (@sakakimoana) January 15, 2022

“Initial reports of damage have been catastrophic and all communications with Tonga have been wiped out,” he said. “Whilst I can’t assist family at this moment I will focus on country as more information comes out.”

Southern Cross Cable Network said on Sunday that it had been able to confirm contact with a communications centre in Tonga and work was under way to have internet and phone links restored.

Tonga's Hunga Tonga volcano just had one of the most violent volcano eruptions ever captured on satellite. pic.twitter.com/M2D2j52gNn

— US StormWatch (@US_Stormwatch) January 15, 2022

An internet post on Sunday morning stated that the Tongan prime minister, Siaosi Sovaleni, said the tsunami warning remained in place and much of the country had sustained serious damage. Australia’s foreign affairs department said its high commission had received no reports of casualties.

Ardern said the situation in Tonga was “hugely concerning”.

“Communication, as a result of the eruption, has been difficult, but our defence force team and ministry of foreign affairs are working as we speak to establish what’s needed and how we can help,” she said.

A damaged boat at Tutukaka, New Zealand, after tsunami waves from the Tongan volcano eruption swept into the marina.
A damaged boat at Tutukaka, New Zealand, after tsunami waves from the Tongan volcano eruption swept into the marina. Photograph: Tanya White/AP

New Zealand has made an initial NZ$500,000 available to Tonga and has dispatched an aerial surveillance aircraft to assess the damage.

Ardern said she had been in touch with Scott Morrison, the Australian PM, and that both governments stood ready to respond to Tonga’s needs. But conditions were not immediately safe for aircraft.

“There’s an urgency here. We want to make sure we’re on the ground as soon as possible, but for our navy vessels it will take several days to reach Tonga, and we need to finely balance the need to get there quickly but to make sure we also get the people and resources they need there as well, and in some cases we have parts of Tonga where we just haven’t been able to establish communication.”

The US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said he was “deeply concerned” for the people of Tonga as they recover and that the United States stood prepared to provide support.

The volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, at 1,800m high and 20km wide, is 65km north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa. US Storm Watch said the eruption was one of the most violent ever captured on satellite, while the Tonga geological service said the gas, smoke and ash from the eruption reached 20km into the sky.

The eruption could be heard as far away as 2,300km away in New Zealand, while tsunami warnings were in force at various times across the Pacific, including in Australia, Japan and the US. Some coastal communities in Fiji and Vanuatu were damaged by large waves, while tidal surges were reported to have damaged harbours and coastal parks along the US west coast.

Satellite imagery appeared to show Tonga’s uninhabited Nuku and Tau islands completely eroded. Tonga has also been hit by two category five cyclones in the last five years: Cyclone Harold in April 2020 and Cyclone Gita in 2018.

In Japan, around 230,000 people were advised to evacuate across eight prefectures as waves of more than a metre hit coastal areas, the public broadcaster NHK reported. The alert included areas hit by the deadly 2011 tsunami.

Ten boats were capsized in Kochi prefecture on Shikoku island in southern Japan, NHK said, and Japan Airlines cancelled 27 flights at airports across the country. There were delays to rail and postal services in some areas, Kyodo News reported, with some residents passing a cold night after evacuating to higher ground.

A red tsunami warning – the second-highest in Japan’s domestic scale – for Iwate prefecture in northern Japan was lifted on Sunday morning, NHK reported, although a less severe yellow tsunami advisory remained in place along Japan’s eastern coast, with authorities continuing to urge caution.

With Reuters


Joshua Mcdonald and agencies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tonga volcano eruption: New Zealand and Australia send planes to assess tsunami damage
Blanket of ash hinders communications from towns believed to have been inundated by waves as first surveillance flights departs

Kate Lyons and Joshua Mcdonald

17, Jan, 2022 @2:53 AM

Article image
Tonga volcano: 84% of population affected by ashfall and tsunami
Some residents relocated after homes destroyed as communication remains ‘an acute challenge’ and more international relief on its way

Kate Lyons

24, Jan, 2022 @12:58 AM

Article image
‘Absolutely amazing’: Tongan man swept away by tsunami stayed afloat for 24 hours
Lisala Folau climbed a tree on his home island before being washed away and eventually managing to reach the capital

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson

20, Jan, 2022 @6:12 AM

Article image
Tonga: tsunami floods streets and cuts communication after undersea volcano erupts
Warnings issued for Australia, Alaska, Hawaii and US west coast as waves observed in Tonga, American Samoa and Fiji

Associated Press

15, Jan, 2022 @9:54 PM

Article image
Tonga volcano explosion equalled most powerful ever US nuclear test
Scientists calculate 2022 eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano released 1,000 times more energy than Hiroshima bomb

Nicola Davis

14, Apr, 2023 @6:00 PM

Article image
‘It’s excruciating’: brother of UK woman swept away in Tonga tsunami waits for news
There has been no update on the fate of Angela Glover who is missing after a tsunami following a volcanic eruption

Kate Lyons Pacific Editor

17, Jan, 2022 @3:43 AM

Article image
Elon Musk offers to send terminals to restore internet to volcano-hit Tonga
Tesla billionaire says he could send Starlink terminals via SpaceX to Pacific island nation where communication is down

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson

21, Jan, 2022 @10:26 PM

Article image
Tonga volcano: a visual guide to the eruption and its aftermath
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption – from explosion and tsunami alerts to a drifting veil of ash

Donna Lu, Nick Evershed and Josh Nicholas

17, Jan, 2022 @10:31 AM

Article image
Tonga says volcanic eruption and tsunami an ‘unprecedented disaster’
Government issues first official update since huge blast on Saturday, saying death toll could rise

Oliver Holmes

18, Jan, 2022 @5:36 PM

Article image
Tonga volcano: distress signal detected in low-lying islands after eruption, as first death reported
Regular contact with Tonga may not resume for weeks after confirmation the communications cable was cut in at least one place

Tess McClure

18, Jan, 2022 @2:38 AM