First aid flight arrives in Tonga following volcano eruption

Kyodo News

Posted at Jan 20 2022 04:41 PM

The first aid flight carrying humanitarian supplies arrived in Tonga on Thursday, after an undersea volcanic eruption on the weekend triggered a tsunami that caused severe damage to the South Pacific island nation.

Aircraft from New Zealand carrying much needed aid and supplies touched down in the capital Nuku'alofa Thursday afternoon, following the completion of cleanup efforts to remove volcanic ash from its main airport's runway that had prevented any aircraft from landing.

The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano on Saturday sent tsunami waves across the Pacific, killing at least three people and causing extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure in Tonga.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a statement the C-130 Hercules aircraft is carrying "humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment."

An offshore naval patrol vessel sent by New Zealand is also expected to arrive in Tonga later Thursday, carrying hydrographic and dive personnel to survey shipping channels and assess wharf infrastructure. A Seasprite helicopter is onboard to assist with supply delivery, the New Zealand government said.

A second New Zealand ship carrying bulk fresh water supplies and a desalination plant is expected to arrive in Tonga on Friday, according to the statement.

A Royal Australian Air Force aircraft loaded with humanitarian supplies and a sweeper to assist in removing ash from the airport runway departed Brisbane on Thursday, with another aircraft due to follow later in the day, Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted Australia's Defense Minister Peter Dutton as saying.

One issue complicating international aid efforts is Tonga's status as a COVID-free country, with fears that aid personnel may bring the virus to the archipelago and worsen the situation. The Pacific nation has so far seen only one infection with no deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

New Zealand's Defense Minister Peeni Henare said the delivery of supplies would be "contactless," with the aircraft expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand.

"We are talking to Tonga about what more they need from us and we can assure them of our ongoing support," Mahuta said.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government decided Thursday to send two C-130 transport planes to Australia as part of efforts to support Tonga. The Self-Defense Forces airplanes, which could depart later Thursday, will carry potable water.

Tokyo also plans to dispatch the SDF transport vessel Osumi for the delivery of high-pressure washers and handcarts to Tonga. A government-linked aid agency is preparing the relief goods to be loaded and the vessel will leave for the Pacific island nation as soon as it is ready, the Japanese government said.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said six SDF and other personnel will be sent to Australia for information-gathering and coordination with other aid providers. In total, Japan will dispatch 300 people for the relief effort, the Defense Ministry said.

On Wednesday, Japan pledged more than $1 million in aid for Tonga.

Some 2G connectivity was restored to the archipelago on Thursday but communications remain limited with demand exceeding capacity, the New Zealand government said, after the volcanic eruption severed Tonga's sole undersea communications cable.

The United Nations said Thursday that about 84,000 people in the archipelago have been impacted by the disaster, or more than 80 percent of the population of about 105,000.