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1st foreign aid flights arrive in Tonga after massive volcanic eruption and tsunami

The first flights carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga finally arrived Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left by a huge volcanic eruption.

New Zealand and Australia each sent military transport planes that were carrying water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene supplies and communications equipment. The Australian plane also had a special sweeper to help keep the runway clear.

The deliveries were dropped off without the military personnel coming in contact with people at the airport in Tonga. That’s because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus. It has not had any outbreaks of COVID-19 and has reported just a single case since the pandemic began.

“This assistance will help our partners, the Tongan government, meet the Tongan community’s needs and support immediate clean-up efforts,” Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said in a release. “Many homes have been destroyed and many people displaced by the tsunami.”

Japan also said it would send emergency relief, including drinking water and equipment for cleaning away volcanic ash. Two Hercules aircraft and a transport vessel carrying two CH-47 Chinook helicopters would leave possibly Thursday, the Defence Ministry said.

Australian High Commissioner to Tonga Rachael Moore and Tongan Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu, watch the arrival of the first Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft delivering aid at Tonga’s Fua’Amotu international airport on Thursday. (Australian Department of Defence/Handout/ Reuters)

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters that his ministry “will do everything we can for the disaster-hit people of Tonga.”

Homes lost, water contaminated

UN humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people — more than 80 per cent of Tonga’s population — have been impacted by the volcano’s eruption, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, pointing to three deaths, injuries, loss of homes and polluted water.

Communications with Tonga remain limited after Saturday’s eruption and tsunami appeared to have broken the single fibre-optic cable that connects Tonga with the rest of the world. That means most people haven’t been able to use the internet or make phone calls abroad, although some local phone networks are still working.

One phone company, Digicel, said Thursday it had managed to restore the ability to make international calls from some places by using a satellite link, but that people would need to be patient due to high demand. It said it hoped to enhance its service over the coming days.

WATCH | Tsunami cut phone service in Tonga:

Tsunami cuts off communication with Tonga, extent of damage unknown

The small nation of Tonga is cut off from most communication after an underwater volcano eruption triggered a tsunami. The country’s isolated location and the lack of communication has made it difficult to assess damage or send aid. 2:07

A navy patrol ship from New Zealand is also expected to arrive later Thursday. It is carrying hydrographic equipment and divers, and also has a helicopter to assist with delivering supplies.

Tsunami waves damage smaller islands

Officials said the ship’s first task would be to check shipping channels and the structural integrity of the wharf in the capital, Nuku’alofa, following the eruption and tsunami.

Another New Zealand navy ship carrying 250,000 litres of water is on its way. The ship can also produce tens of thousands of litres of fresh water each day using a desalination plant.

Three of Tonga’s smaller islands suffered serious damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.

People clear ash off a damaged area in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, on Thursday in this photo provided by Broadcom Broadcasting, The first flight carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga finally arrived Thursday. (Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting/The Associated Press)

The UN’s Dujarric said “all houses have apparently been destroyed on the island of Mango and only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka.” He said evacuations are underway for people from the islands.

According to Tongan census figures, Mango is home to 36 people, Fonoifua is home to 69 people and Nomuka to 239. The majority of Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, where about 50 homes were destroyed.

Dujarric said the most pressing humanitarian needs are safe water, food and non-food items, and top priorities are re-establishing communication services including for international calls and the internet.

Tonga has so far avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.

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