Two New Zealand naval ships are being sent to Tonga to provide support, carrying fresh water, emergency provisions, and diving teams.
It comes as ashfall on the Nuku’alofa airport runway means one of the aircraft readied yesterday — a C-130 Hercules, to supply aid — would be unable to land.
The official death toll from Saturday’s eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano and tsunami is two, but getting accurate information from the ground has been difficult.
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In a statement this afternoon, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Defence Minister Peeni Henare said New Zealand was ready to assist.
The HMNZS Wellington would transport survey equipment and a helicopter, while HMNZS Aotearoa would transport 250,000 litres of water and is able to produce an extra 70,000 litres per day through salinisation, they said.
The journey is expected to take three days.
Mahuta said authorities had struggled with communications on the ground so decided to send aid before an official request.
“The delays mean we have taken the decision for both HMNZS Wellington and HMNZS Aotearoa to sail so they can respond quickly if called upon by the Tongan Government,” she said.
Henare said the ships would return to New Zealand if not required.
He said the survey and diving teams would be able to assess wharf infrastructure, and changes to the seabed in shipping channels and ports, to assure future delivery of aid and support from the sea.
The Hercules flight remains on standby with humanitarian aid and disaster relief stores including collapsible water containers, generators and hygiene kits.
Tonga is free of covid-19 and operates strict border controls, so all support is being offered in a contactless way.
The ministers’ statement said a further NZ$500,000 in humanitarian assistance had been allocated, bringing the total to $1 million.
Serious damage has been reported from the west coast of Tongatapu and a state of emergency has been declared.
Acting High Commissioner for New Zealand in Tonga Peter Lund told Tagata Pasifika he could see rubble, large rocks and damaged buildings, with serious damage along the west coast of Tongatapu.
“There is a huge clean-up operation underway, the town has been blanketed in a thick blanket of volcanic dust, but look they’re making progress… roads are being cleared,” he said.
A Briton among fatalities
UN Coordonator in the Pacific Jonathan Veitch said one of the fatalities was British national Angela Glover, who was reported by her family to have been killed by the tsunami.
Glover is thought to have died trying to rescue her dogs at the animal charity she ran.
Veitch told RNZ full information from some islands — such as the Ha’apai group — was not available.
“We know that the Tonga Navy has gone there and we expect to hear back soon.”
The communication situation was “absolutely terrible”.
NEWS📢 The NZ Government has released an update on New Zealand’s support to #Tonga ➡️https://t.co/01JrI41gNx#Force4NZ #NZAirForce pic.twitter.com/TeYAvdRJMR
— NZ Defence Force (@NZDefenceForce) January 18, 2022
“I have worked in a lot of emergencies but this is one of the hardest in terms of communicating and trying to get information from there. With the severing of the cable that comes from Fiji they’re just cut off completely,” he said.
“We’re relying 100 percent on satellite phones.
‘Bit of a struggle’
“We’ve been discussing with New Zealand and Australia and UN colleagues … and we hope to have this [cable] back up and running relatively soon, but it’s been a bit of a struggle.”
It had been “a lot more difficult” than regular operations, Veitch said.
One of the biggest concerns in the crisis was clean water, he said.
“I think one of the first things that can be done is if those aircraft or those ships that both New Zealand and Australia have offered can provide bottled drinking water. That’s a very small, short-term solution.
“We need to ensure that the desalination plants are functioning well and properly … and we need to send a lot of testing kits and other material over there so people can treat their own water, because as you know, the vast majority of the population in Tonga is reliant on rainwater.
“And with the ash as it currently is, it has been a bit acidic, so we’re not sure of the quality of the water right now.”
Access in ‘covid-free nation’
Another issue was access.
“Tonga is one of the few lucky countries in the world that hasn’t had covid … so we’ll have to operate rather remotely. So we’ll be supporting the government to do the implementation and then working very much through local organisations.”
For those in Tonga who were cut off, Veitch said the main message was “everybody is working day and night on this. We are putting our supplies together. We are ready to move.
“We have teams on the ground. We are coming up with cash and other supply solutions … so help is on its way”.
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. It corrects an earlier report on the death toll headlined “Tonga volcano tsunami death toll rises to three, reports UN”. The death toll stood at 2 as confirmed by MFAT.