Reports of casualties expected from tsunami-hit Tonga with communications nearly unavailable

WELLINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) – Tsunami-hit Tonga remained largely unreachable on Sunday with phone and internet links down, leaving loved ones in remote New Zealand to pray for their families in the Pacific islands as reports on the victims had not yet arrived.

An undersea volcano off Tonga erupted on Saturday, triggering 1.2-meter tsunami wave warnings and evacuation orders on the coasts of Tonga as well as several South Pacific islands, where images on social media showed waves breaking on coastal homes.

Internet and phone lines went down around 6:40 p.m. local time on Saturday, leaving the islands’ 105,000 residents virtually unreachable.

Join now for FREE unlimited access to


There are as yet no official reports of injuries or fatalities in Tonga, although communications are limited and no contact has been made with coastal areas beyond the capital Nuku’alofa, said Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, at a press conference on Sunday.

Tonga, an island nation of around 105,000 people, lies 2,383 kilometers (1,481 miles) northeast of New Zealand.

“Nuku’alofa is covered in thick plumes of volcanic dust, but otherwise conditions are calm and stable,” Ardern said.

“We haven’t heard from other coastal areas yet,” she said.

Satellite images captured the volcanic eruption on Saturday as the explosion sent plumes of smoke into the air and about 20 km above sea level. The skies over Tonga were darkened with ash.

Concerns were growing among the Tongan community in New Zealand, desperate to make contact with their families back home. Some churches have held community prayers in Auckland and other cities.

“We pray that God helps our country at this sad time. We hope everyone is safe,” said Maikeli Atiola, secretary of the Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Auckland, Radio New Zealand reported.

Ardern said the main undersea communications cable was hit, likely due to a power outage.

Power was being restored to parts of the islands and local cellphones were slowly starting to work, she added.

Official damage assessments were not yet available, she said. But Ardern said the New Zealand High Commission in Nuku’alofa said the tsunami damaged boats, shops and other infrastructure.

Tonga’s cabinet held a crisis meeting on Sunday and was contacting development partners, a spokeswoman for Zed Seselja, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, told Reuters. She said Australia would send a P8 surveillance plane to Tonga on Monday.


The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano has erupted regularly for decades, but Saturday’s eruption was so strong that people in remote parts of Fiji and New Zealand said the have heard.

“My whole house was shaking,” said Sanya Ruggiero, a communications adviser based in Suva, Fiji’s capital, some 750 km from Tonga.

“My doors, my windows were slamming like hell. And mine wasn’t even as bad as the others. Hundreds of people fled their homes,” said Ruggiero, a consultant for several agencies, including the United Nations. .

Rumblings and eruptions from the volcano continued to be heard throughout the night, Ruggiero said. Hundreds of people have been moved to evacuation centers in Suva. Fiji Airways had to cancel all flights due to ash clouds.

“This is the worst disaster Tonga has seen in living memory and recovery will take years,” Ruggiero said.

Experts said ash fallout could contaminate drinking water and cause respiratory problems.

“Help will be needed to restore clean water supplies. People in Tonga should also remain alert for further eruptions and especially short-term tsunamis and should avoid low-lying areas,” said Shane Cronin, Professor at the School of Environment at the University of Auckland.

The eruptions have triggered tsunami warnings in the Pacific, with the United States urging Pacific coast residents to stay off shore and Australia’s New South Wales region closing beaches.

Hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens were told to evacuate as waves of more than a meter battered coastal areas. Read more

Join now for FREE unlimited access to


Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Leslie Adler and Simon Cameron-Moore

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Comments are closed.