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explainer

The explosion of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai all but cut off a Pacific island country from the outside world, but the damage to populated areas is not as bad as many feared. Here’s a visual guide to the disaster


About the tsunamis

B.C. and California went on alert last weekend for tsunamis that never came, but in Tonga, waves on islands close to the eruption were up to 15 metres high. All homes were destroyed on Mango island, home to about 50 people. Three people are confirmed dead so far: One 65-year-old Tongan woman on Mango, a 49-year-old Tongan man on Nomuka island and a British national, 50-year-old Angela Glover.

Post-tsunami debris in Nuku'alofa on Jan. 18.Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5/via REUTERS

The good news is that Tongatapu, the large island where the majority of Tongans live, avoided heavy tsunami damage; the waves there were about 80 centimetres high and people had enough warning to get away from the coast. “We did hold grave fears, given the magnitude of what we saw in that unprecedented blast,” Katie Greenwood, the Fiji-based head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Associated Press. “Fortunately, in those major population centres we are not seeing the catastrophic effect we thought might happen, and that’s very good news.”

Damage from volcanic tsunamis can be harder to predict than the type caused by earthquakes because there are more factors: displacement of water by explosive force, intense heat and shifting volcanic matter, to name a few. Volcanoes don’t even need to be underwater to make waves: The tsunami from 2018′s eruption of Anak Krakatau (“Child of Krakatoa”) in Indonesia was triggered when part of the volcano collapsed into the Sunda Strait.


FILE - Young men play a game of rugby at sunset in Nuku'alofa in 2019.Mark Baker/The Associated Press

About Tonga

Tonga is a Polynesian kingdom made up of more than 170 islands, 36 of them inhabited. It’s home to about 105,000 people, but tens of thousands of Tongans live in New Zealand, Australia and other Pacific countries. Remittances from overseas workers make up more than a third of GDP. Most people in Tonga live rurally, getting food from subsistence agriculture and drinking water from rain collection – which is now threatened by ash from the volcano and seawater from the tsunami.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been bad news for its supply chains and tourist trade, Tonga is one of the few places on Earth untouched by the virus itself: It’s had one confirmed case, a fully vaccinated person repatriated from New Zealand this past October. For this reason, Tonga will be reluctant to ask for large deployments of aid workers who might introduce the virus, Ms. Greenwood told AP.


Flag bearer Pita Taufatofua, shown at the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, is crowdfunding to help Tonga.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

About the relief effort

Tonga’s Pacific neighbours have been helping with reconnaissance and search-and-rescue operations. Australia and New Zealand’s first surveillance flights to Tonga brought some supplies; HMNZS Wellington set off from Auckland with survey teams and a helicopter, and HMNZS Aotearoa will bring 250,000 litres of water and the means to make 70,000 more litres per day. Further aid shipments will become easier once the ash is cleared away from the runway of the main airport, Fua’amotu International on Tongatapu, which seems otherwise undamaged.

Repairs to the communications system have already begun, but could take a long time to finish. Telecom operator Digicel said Wednesday that it had restored international phone calls, though Reuters news agency was not immediately able to reach numbers in Tonga. As for the undersea cable, a repair ship is aiming to embark from Papua New Guinea this weekend, the chairman of Tonga Cable Ltd. told Reuters, but added that it’ll be “lucky” if the job is done within a month.

One famous Tongan who’s raising awareness of the situation is Pita Taufatofua, a taekwondo athlete and cross-country skier who carried Tonga’s flag at the past three Olympics. From his training camp in Australia, he started a crowdfunding campaign that’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to be distributed once Tongans can report on where funding is needed.

With reports from The Associated Press and Reuters

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