Aid mission to Tonga amid 'limited' communications

By Marena Mane

The NZ government has been urgently attempting to gather information about the situation on the ground in Tonga since the eruption in Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai 65km north of Nuku'alofa, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a press conference Sunday afternoon.

"As yet, there are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga," she says.

"In addition, all High Commission staff are safe, as well as our NZ Defence Force and police staff stationed in Tonga."

Assitance from Aotearoa

Ardern says the government of Tonga has accepted an offer of assistance from Aotearoa of an NZDF surveillance flight and that an Orion aircraft is ready to deploy Monday morning provided ash from the eruption has reduced sufficiently.

"At present, it is not safe or viable to begin the reconnaissance. This morning the top of the ash clouds were estimated to be 63,000 feet higher than an RNZ aircraft can fly."

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the NZDF and other New Zealand agencies are working through further air and sea options to get aid to Tonga."

Ardern says that an initial $500,000 has been approved to respond to requests for assistance from Tongan authorities.

"Please let me be very clear, this is very much a starting figure and the government will provide additional assistance as required."

Assistance also from Australia

Ardern has also been in contact with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who she says is also ready to assist our Pacific neighbours.

"He has just advised, we have the aircraft ready to deploy and in tandem are also looking at the deployment of a navy vessel, should it be required for the additional provisions."

Ardern says it has been made clear that Tonga is in need of water, first and foremost.

"The ash cloud ... has caused contamination, that's on top of already a challenging environment in terms of water supply - and that's what the Defence Force are focused on."

Communication limited in Tonga

Communication in Tonga remains very limited and Ardern says she understands this will be creating a lot of anxiety for those trying to get ahold of their loved ones back home.

"The main undersea communication cable has been impacted ... that is why communication has been limited. Telecommunication authorities are working urgently to restore communication."

She says an official assessment of the damage is not yet available but the tsunami that followed the eruption has had a significant impact on the foreshore on the northern side of Nuku'alofa, with boats and large boulders washed ashore and shops along the coast damaged.

Nuku'alofa is covered in a thick film of volcanic dust. Power has been restored to some areas of Nuku'alofa and local mobile phones are working, Ardern said.

"But otherwise conditions are calm and stable."

Ardern cautions, "We've not yet received news from other coastal areas of Tongatapu or the outer islands yet."