‘The houses are simply gone’: Tonga emerges from volcano and tsunami disaster | Tonga

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Tonga is used to natural disasters, but they have never experienced anything like last week.

“We have experienced tropical cyclones, but this is so new and no one will ever forget it,” said Marian Kupu, reporter for BroadCom Broadcasting FM87.5 in Tonga.

“We didn’t know what to do or what to expect.”

On Saturday, January 15, at 5:10 p.m. local time, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano erupted in an explosion 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It could be felt as far away as New Zealand and Alaska. This caused a tsunami.

So far, three people have been reported dead in Tonga due to the tsunami, while two others have drowned in Peru after unusually large waves from the blast hit the South American coast.

There had been signs that something was wrong. All summer there had been a smell of sulfur in the air across Tonga, signaling that the underwater volcano, which lies about 65 km northwest of the country’s capital, Nuku’alofa , was active. There had been small eruptions, and on Friday, the day before the eruption and tsunami, the water in Nuku’alofa Harbor was spinning in whirlpools and whirlpools, something no one had seen before.

When the eruption occurred, it was so strong that Kupu’s ears were ringing.

“Do you know that experience when you fly in an airplane with your ears? It was like that ten times. We couldn’t get along, we could just imitate everyone else just to run, just to leave, let’s go and leave the house immediately, ”she said.

She and her family got into the car. The main road, normally two lanes of traffic – one in each direction – became four lanes of traffic, with everyone heading east away from the volcano.

An overview of Nomuka in the Tonga group of islands before and after the volcanic eruption. Photography: AP

“We thought it was raining, because we can hear it echoing off the windshield…but there was no rain, it was these little pebbles. And then dust started falling… black dust that poured out.

The sky darkened at 6 p.m., whereas at this time of the year, night normally does not fall until 8 p.m. Traffic came to a standstill as people’s cars were covered in thick layers of ash. The boys were running along the road with water bottles, spraying water on the windshields so the cars could keep going.

Kupu arrived at her brother’s home, inland and on higher ground, and was able to return home the next day.

Since then, she has worked around the clock to tell Tonga’s stories of damage and survival.

She traveled west to the hardest-hit part of the main island on Tuesday to survey the damage.

Tonga: New images show aftermath of volcano eruption and tsunami – video
Tonga: New images show aftermath of volcano eruption and tsunami – video

The first thing that hit her was the smell.

“I don’t know where it came from, I think [it was from] the seabed from there being washed over [to land] with mud. There were even dead fish found there on land,” she said.

The power of the tsunami was clearly visible. The coconut palms that had been standing now lay in rows slanting to the right, almost parallel to the ground, in the direction the tsunami waves had pushed them down.

Everything on the west side of the road – the direction from which the tsunami struck – had been heaved up, uprooted, carried across the road and crushed against the trees on the east side.

“Wood, bushes, cars, roofs, they were all trapped on the coconut trees on the road; houses, they were all on the other side of the road.

“Everything is just dead. There is only mud, dust everywhere. The houses have just disappeared… Some houses are still standing, but everything inside the house is destroyed by water of sea. Beds, chairs, sofas, everything is gone. I mean, wet or destroyed, so it’s not livable.

The eyes of the world have been on Tonga for a week. During the eruption, the country’s undersea communications cable was damaged in two places, virtually cutting off the island from the rest of the world, which was anxiously awaiting news.

When her radio station’s satellite connection was restored, she was suddenly inundated with requests for interviews with TV stations in the United States, Germany, China and the Netherlands.

Volcanic ash covers the street next to the former prime minister's office in Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital.
Volcanic ash covers the street next to the former prime minister’s office in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital. Photograph: Mary Lyn Fonua/Matangi Tonga/AFP/Getty Images

“People were shouting and saying, ‘You’re the first person we’ve spoken to since Tonga! Are you OK?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s okay, I was back at work on Monday.’

“I didn’t know the whole world thought Tonga sank,” she said.

But while she is both baffled and amused by the global attention the disaster has warranted – Kupu says she is asking reporters if they had even heard of Tonga before the volcano hit and that her default explanation to people is that Tonga is near Samoa, “where The Rock is from” – she fears the attention is shifting quickly and Tonga will be left alone with this crisis.

Drinking water is a huge concern, Kupu says, given the ash that has blanketed the island, but so is food, given that many people depend on the plantations, which were destroyed by the disaster.

“I can stay calm, but we need help,” she said. “We’ve lost lives, we’ve lost homes…we’ve damaged homes, we’ve damaged roads. We need help and we don’t know how long we will live with this and how will we [get through it], not only physical things but also mental things… because we have never experienced that.


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