Residents of Tonga raised serious concerns on Saturday night after tsunami waves hit the island nation following a volcanic eruption. As sunlight gave way to darkness, Tongans fled to higher ground and relatives in New Zealand desperately tried to reach their loved ones. Report by Torika Tokalau, Skara Bohny, Hannah Martin and Stephanie Ockhuysen.
Lavinia Taumoepeau-Latu was on the phone with her husband Evona Latu when the phone broke down.
“I would imagine the area he was in was just dark clouds and rocks,” the now US-based former Interior Department staffer said on Saturday evening. United.
Taumoepeau-Latu was one of many people trying to reach loved ones in Tonga after tsunami waves swamped the island nation early on Saturday night following a volcanic eruption. Official communications were scarce, and attempts to reach the island’s inhabitants were thwarted by poor telecommunications.
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The waves hit around 6 p.m. Saturday New Zealand time and followed several eruptions from Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, located about 30 kilometers southeast of the island of Fonuafo’ou, the last before the waves hit at 5:30 p.m.
Eruptions had been noted the day before and earlier in December, but the latest eruption – which sent ash, steam and gas 20km into the air and was captured by shocking satellite images – could be felt as far away as Fiji, where locals have reported shaking and thriving.
Taumoepeau-Latu spoke to Evona as the sky darkened – and he reported that it was raining small stones. He told her that there were people trying to evacuate to higher ground, but since there was only one main road from the town, messages on the radio told people in the areas of center and east to stay put to allow others to evacuate. Social media footage shows people fleeing in the dark.
There were other grim reports: a person who asked to remain anonymous said the New Zealand High Commission compound was “full of people and they were running out of food to feed them”. They said [the areas of] “Sopu, Popua, Fangaloto, Patangata are underwater at last light” and it was “frightening darkness everywhere”.
“A boy who just arrived soaked said he ran out of his friends’ house not knowing what had happened to his family,” the witness said. “It’s not sure if they’ve left their house because they don’t have a car to let them in.
The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai eruption blanketed a large area in ash and smoke and caused tsunami waves to hit Tonga.
Panic and heroism as the tsunami hits
Mere Taufa was inside her home in Nuku’alofa with her family, getting ready for dinner, when they heard and smelled the rash.
“It was huge, the ground shook, our house was shaking. It came in waves, my younger brother thought bombs were going off nearby,” Taufa said.
“My first instinct was to hide under the table, I grabbed my little sister and yelled at my parents and others in the house to do the same.”
The next thing they knew water had filled their home: “We knew right away it was a tsunami.”
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, United States, confirmed his fears late Saturday night.
She saw the walls of one of her neighbors’ house crumble as the waves of the tsunami slammed into the houses.
“You could just hear screams everywhere, people screaming for safety, for everyone to get to higher ground.”
There were also stories of heroism. Tevita Sailosi carried her elderly grandmother to the roof of their Nuku’alofa home as water flooded their home. He said he knew a volcano had erupted – he heard it.
“To be honest, we are still in shock. First we heard the explosion and then the water was in our house,” Sailosi said.
Waves hit the Pacific island kingdom after the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano erupted.
His family was safe, but he worried about what the night would bring.
“Hopefully we’re out of it now and there are no more waves. For now, we’re staying put, we’ve got our phones and radios on, for any updates. We’ve heard some cries, people helped where they could,” he said.
“We also heard chanting, so that kind of lifted our spirits a bit. We just hope everyone is safe there,” Sailosi said, before his phone was cut off.
Overnight, relatives in New Zealand, desperate for information, were trying to reach their loved ones.
Aminiasi Manu, based in Pakuranga, Auckland, had been trying to contact his 89-year-old mother and sister in Tonga for hours before finally learning they were heading for higher ground.
Their village on the east coast of Tonga is a 10-minute walk from the beach.
Manu was worried.
“Part of me is amazed at what is happening and the other part is scared… They have to go to heights, but there are not many heights in Tonga, there are no mountains.”
Nuku’alofa-based Mary Fonua said the volcano’s eruption was “frightening”.
New Zealand responds to disaster
Late Saturday night, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said it had no information to suggest the Kiwis had been affected “at this stage”.
“The New Zealand High Commission in Nuku’alofa is closely monitoring the situation and is in contact with local authorities.”
The MFAT said all New Zealanders in Tonga are asked to register their details on safetravel.govt.nz. A spokesman said on Saturday evening that 18 New Zealanders were registered as being in Tonga with Safe Travel.
“If you are in the affected area or areas potentially affected by a tsunami, you should follow the advice of local authorities, including any tsunami evacuation orders. Please also keep your family in New Zealand informed of your well-being.
“We also recommend that you stay informed of developments by monitoring local media. If you require consular assistance, please contact the New Zealand High Commission in Nuku’alofa on +676 23122 or for consular emergencies on +64 99 20 20 20.
The NZDF said it was monitoring the situation on Saturday evening and was ready to help if the Tongan government asked for help.
New Zealand coast could experience ‘unpredictable’ currents
While a tsunami warning remained in place for the whole of Tonga on Saturday evening, there was no such warning in New Zealand.
Civil Defense, however, said coastal areas could experience “strong and unpredictable” currents. People in or near the sea should stay out of the water, beaches and coastal areas and away from ports, rivers and estuaries until at least 4 a.m. Sunday, and people have were warned not to go to the coast to observe the “unusual” wave activity.
The United States issued a tsunami advisory for American Samoa after the eruption, but canceled it later Saturday evening.
Evacuations took place in Savai’i, Samoa, on Saturday evening, according to local media.
The Fijian government has also advised people living in low-lying coastal areas to move to higher ground in anticipation of strong currents and dangerous waves. Fiji opened evacuation centers on Saturday night due to “unusual tidal waves”.
Dr Frank Ross, who lives in Suva, said there were “constant and intermittent booms” for more than half an hour, which were still continuing at 7 p.m. Saturday New Zealand time. The booms could also be heard in Northland, New Zealand.
After people across the country took to Twitter to report hearing the explosions, the MetService responded that they were caused by overpressure from the volcano in Tonga. He said the sound waves could have been heard a bit later in some parts of the country and some people also heard a rumbling, likely associated with the eruption.