First aid finally reaches Tonga as telephone lines partially restored

People clean debris following volcanic eruption and tsunami, in Nuku'alofa, Tonga on Tuesday in this picture obtained from social media on Wednesday.

People clean debris following volcanic eruption and tsunami, in Nuku'alofa, Tonga on Tuesday in this picture obtained from social media on Wednesday. (Marian Kupu, Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5 via REUTERS)


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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The first aircraft carrying humanitarian supplies arrived in Tonga on Thursday, five days after the South Pacific island nation was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami that devastated communities and spoiled most of its drinking water.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules landed in Tonga's Fua'amotu International Airport, a defense spokesperson said, after a blanket of volcanic ash was cleared off the runway.

An Australian Globemaster military transport aircraft also landed, the ABC TV broadcaster reported.

"The aircraft is carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment," New Zealand's foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said in a statement, referring to the New Zealand plane.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said its aircraft was loaded with supplies including water desalination equipment, shelter, kitchens, and a sweeper to help remove ash from the airport. A second Australian aircraft is due to make the flight on Thursday.

The delivery of the supplies was contactless to ensure Tonga remains free of the coronavirus.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday killed at least three people, sent tsunami waves rolling across the archipelago, damaging villages, resorts and many buildings and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.

Rachael Moore, Australia's high commissioner to Tonga, said the loss of property had been "catastrophic..

"Along the western beaches there is a moonscape where once beautiful resorts and many, many homes stood," Moore told Australian radio, adding that drinking water was "an extremely high priority."

Telephone links between Tonga and the outside world were reconnected late on Wednesday, though restoring full internet services was likely to take a month or more, according to the owner of the archipelago's sole subsea communications cable.

Speaking to Reuters from the capital, Nuku'alofa, journalist Marian Kupu said Tongans were cleaning up all the dust from the volcanic eruption but feared they may run out of drinking water.

"Each home has their own tanks of water supply but most of them are filled with dust so it's not safe for drinking," Kupu said.

She also said villages on the western side of Tonga were very badly hit.

"I won't say we are expecting more deaths but as we are speaking the government is trying to fly to the other islands to check over them."

Asked if there was enough food, she said: "I can say maybe we can survive for the next few weeks but I'm not sure about water."

'Sigh of relief'

New Zealand is sending two ships, one of which is carrying 250,000 liters of water and desalination equipment that will be able to produce 70,000 liters a day.

It is due to arrive on Friday but the other New Zealand ship is due in on Thursday and will check shipping channels and wharf approaches at Tonga's port.

Australia is also flying in desalination equipment, shelter, kitchens and the sweeper to help clear the runway at the airport.

"There is obviously a lot of ash on the runway and a need to make sure that is it safe for some of the aid flights to land," Dutton told Australian radio.

Tongans abroad were frantically calling families back home to ensure they are safe.

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"There's a sigh of relief as we are able to communicate with our loved ones," said John Pulu, an Auckland-based Tongan television and radio personality.

"We are breathing and sleeping a little better."

The United Nations said that about 84,000 people — more than 80% of the population — has been badly affected by the disaster.

"They have been affected through loss of houses, loss of communication, what we understand is the issue with the water," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

The most pressing humanitarian needs are safe water, food and nonfood items, he said.

"Water is really the biggest life‑saving issue."

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted about 40 miles from the Tongan capital with a blast heard 1,429 miles away in New Zealand.

Waves reaching up to 49 feet hit the outer Ha'apai island group, destroying all the houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, where 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged, the prime minister's office said.

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