In Volcano’s Wake, an Agonizing Wait for News From Tonga

Two days after a colossal volcanic eruption spawned a tsunami that struck the island nation of Tonga, severed communication lines left Tongans around the world waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones, while aid agencies and the country’s Pacific neighbors struggled to assess the scale of the damage.

On Saturday night, an undersea volcano about 40 miles north of Tonga’s main island belched ash, gas and steam more than 12 miles into the air, creating a cloud of sulfur dioxide over the region, sending particles drifting across the island and disabling a crucial submarine internet cable. It was believed to be the largest volcanic eruption in three decades, with the shock wave traveling thousands of miles.

Hours later, Tonga, a country of around 100,000 people, was pummeled by a tsunami. Waves of up to four feet hit Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital. Footage shared in the final moments before the internet connection was cut showed people running inland, searching desperately for higher ground in a very flat country.

The volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, erupted again on Monday but did not trigger a tsunami warning. Tonga sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a series of fault lines where earthquakes and volcanic activity are frequent.

A Royal Australian Air Force plane departing on Monday to assess the damage in Tonga.Credit…Australian Department of Defense, via Reuters

Fatafehi Fakafanua, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Tonga, was able to send out a message on social media on Monday, describing the tsunami’s impact as “devastating” and noting that the fall of volcanic ash had affected many areas of the country.

“The full extent of the harm to lives and property is currently unknown,” he said. “What we do know is that Tonga needs immediate assistance to provide its citizens with fresh drinking water and food.”

The loss of most communications, as well as a lingering ash cloud that had reached some 63,000 feet high, have made it difficult for the outside world to get a picture of the situation in Tonga. Both Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights to the country on Monday but had yet to detail what they saw.

That left thousands of overseas Tongans to make do with piecemeal videos — of waves buffeting the shore, or of families sheltering under tables below a dark sky — that were shared through the island’s few satellite links.

The organizations with access to these communications, including the New Zealand High Commission, have filled in some of the blanks, though many people were still waiting desperately for news.

An image taken by a Japanese weather satellite showed a cloud of sulfur dioxide over the region after the eruption.Credit…National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, via Associated Press

Siniva Valu Filise, who lives in Wales, where her husband played professional rugby, is worried about her parents, 73 and 66, whose home is on the western side of Tonga.

A friend with a connection to the Tongan military was able to briefly confirm in a message that her parents were safe, she said. But she is unsure about their access to clean drinking water and food after the eruption left the layer of ash across the country.

“We feel so helpless,” she said. “Just watching from afar, we can’t even do anything.”

She added: “It’s been two days now. It’s just so hard, trying to hold on to that glimmer of hope.”

No deaths have been officially confirmed so far, but at least one person has been reported missing. Angela Glover, a British woman who had lived in Tonga for around five years, was swept away while trying to save her dogs, according to video footage. Her husband, James, survived by holding on to a tree.

A house in Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital, in 2019. The near total loss of communications and the ash cloud have made it difficult to get a picture of the situation in Tonga.Credit…Mark Baker/Associated Press

Fatima Dowling, a friend of Ms. Glover’s who lives in New South Wales in Australia, said it was becoming harder to remain optimistic. “It’s sort of — the longer it drags on,” she said, her voice trailing off. “It’s not a very big island. If she hasn’t been found yet. …”

Ms. Dowling, who had volunteered with Ms. Glover in Tonga, was also waiting for news from a friend who runs a resort, with whom she normally speaks daily. “I pretty much ring her every hour or so, but nothing’s happening,” she said. “It’s just impossible at the moment.”

Tongans overseas have organized prayer circles and vigils to support one another as they await word.

“I’ve just been talking to friends, organizing prayer vigils and stuff like that for family and for Tongans overseas who are trying to make connections with family back home,” said Mele Makelesi Facci, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has not heard from her relatives in Tonga, including a niece who had a baby a few weeks ago.

For Tongan seasonal workers living in Australia, such community and prayer were helping to bridge the gap, she added.

“They feel helpless. They can’t do anything from here,” she said. “Just not being able to be connected, I think it’s the hardest part.”

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