An extremely powerful underwater volcanic eruption near Tonga triggered a tsunami and blanketed the Pacific Island country in ash, causing what authorities called an “unprecedented disaster.”
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) off Tonga’s main island, erupted for eight minutes on Saturday Jan. 15, causing tsunami warnings across the Pacific Ocean.
Tsunami waves rolled over Tonga’s islands, destroying almost all the homes on two small isles and blanketing the country in ash, the Guardian reported.
The blast was heard in New Zealand, which is 2,300 km (1,430 miles) away, and experts believe it was the world’s biggest volcano eruption in more than 30 years, according to CNN.
The force of the eruption was estimated to be more than 500 times stronger than that of the nuclear bomb that the US dropped in Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II, a leading NASA scientist told Reuters.
Communications were hampered as a major – and the country’s only – undersea cable was severed in the eruption, leaving it largely cut off from the rest of the world and authorities struggling to reach more remote parts of the country.
New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern said a day after the erpution that there were signs of significant damage, but it had been difficult to officially assess the damage due to the difficulties in communication.
Information about the scale of the devastation in the archipelago country, which comprises 176 islands with a total population of about 105,000, has since mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.
Tonga’s prime minister’s office said in its first statement on Tuesday Jan. 18 it had confirmed the death of three people but the toll could rise as authorities continue to gather information.
It said the eruption and aftermath had destroyed every home on Mango island, where about 50 people live, and only two houses remained on the island of Fonoifua.
The Red Cross said that the salt water from the tsunami and the volcanic ash has contaminated drinking water sources for tens of thousands of people.
Countries such as New Zealand and Australia have offered emergency aid and financial assistance, with aid flights expected to resume on Thursday depending on the clear-up operations at the airport, a Tongan official told Reuters.
Two New Zealand navy vessels carrying critical water supplies are also set to arrive in Tonga on Friday.