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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says there are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga in the wake of the undersea volcano eruption and tsunami, but communication with the kingdom is very limited.

Communication with the island nation has been cut off since yesterday evening and members of the Tongan community in New Zealand are desperately awaiting news of their loved ones.

In a post on her Facebook page, Ardern said images of the underwater volcanic eruption on Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai were “hugely concerning”.

She told the media briefing today communication as a result of the eruption had been difficult but the New Zealand Defence Force and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were working to establish what was needed and how to help.

Ardern said the undersea cable had been impacted, probably because of power cuts, and authorities were trying urgently to restore communications.

Local mobile phones were not working, she said.

A significant clean up would be needed. Authorities were still trying to make communication with some of the smaller islands, she said.

NZ offers $500,000 donation
Ash had stopped falling in the capital Nuku’alofa, she said.

The Tongan government has accepted a New Zealand government offer for a reconnaissance flight, and an Orion will take off tomorrow morning provided conditions allow.

At present ash has been spotted at 63,000 feet.

The government is also announcing a $500,000 donation which is very much a “starting point”, Ardern said.

A naval vessel has also been put on standby to assist if necessary.

Ardern has also been in touch with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison so that both governments can work in tandem in their response.

Ardern said she had not been able to speak to the Tongan Prime Minister, because communications were so difficult.

Little information on outer islands
“At the moment we are mainly receiving information from our High Commission …unfortunately from the outer islands we don’t have a lot of information,” she said.

Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito William Sio said the Tongan Consul General Lenisiloti Sitafooti Aho had confirmed Tonga’s Royal family were safe.

The New Zealand High Commission advised that the tsunami had had a significant impact on the foreshore on the northern side of Nuku’alofa, with boats and large boulders washed ashore.

Shops along the coast had been damaged and there would need to be a major cleanup, Ardern said.

An undersea volcano eruption in Tonga on Saturday 15 January, 2022. The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano came just a few hours after Friday's tsunami warning was lifted.
The undersea volcano eruption in Tonga on 15 January 2022. The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano came just a few hours after Friday’s tsunami warning was lifted. Image: RNZ/Tonga Meteorological Services/EyePress/AFP

While ash had stopped falling in Nuku’alofa, it was having a big impact on the island, initial reports indicated.

Authorities were still trying to make communication with some of the smaller islands, Ardern said.

“There are parts of Tonga where we just don’t know yet – we just haven’t established communication.”

Satellite images revealed the ‘scale’
Ardern said satellite images “really brought home the scale of that volcanic eruption,” adding that people know how close Tonga was to the volcano, so it was very concerning for those trying to contact their relatives.

Sio said there had been overwhelming concern in New Zealand for whānau in Tonga. Pacific people were resilient people who had experienced hurricanes and storms before and knew how to respond, he said.

He appealed for people to allow officials the time to ascertain how best to respond effectively.

Ardern said anyone in the Pacific region, such as holidaymakers, should heed local advice.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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