The race against time continued on Wednesday in the Tonga Islands to clear the ash covering the country’s main airstrip and allow the arrival of planes carrying emergency aid, four days after a devastating eruption and tsumani. . The volcanic eruption of January 15, heard as far as Alaska (United States), located more than 9,000 km away, was the largest recorded for decades. A huge mushroom of smoke 30 km high dispersed ash, gas and acid rain across the Pacific region, before being followed by a tsunami.

The eruption caused a huge pressure wave that swept across the planet, traveling at a supersonic speed of about 1,231 kilometers per hour, according to New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research. During the tsunami, waves of 15 meters in height were recorded, the government of Tonga said in a statement.

“An unprecedented disaster”

They swept over the capital Nuku’alofa, whose inhabitants fled to the heights, leaving behind flooded houses, while rocks and ash fell from the sky. More than 100,000 people, equivalent to the population of Tonga, have been affected by the ashfall and the tsunami, said the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid), citing the Tonga Red Cross.

“An unprecedented disaster has struck Tonga,” the government said in its first public statement since the eruption, citing three people killed and “a number” injured. The archipelago was devastated, according to satellite images released on Tuesday. He is cut off from the world after the communications cable that connects him to the Internet breaks.

“US cable company SubCom says it will take at least four weeks for Tonga’s connection to be restored,” the ministry said on Wednesday. The few possible communications are through satellite phones, mainly held by foreign embassies in the capital Nuku’alofa.

Planes and ships expected

Australia and New Zealand have C-130 military jets ready to take off once the ash clears. But a layer of five to ten centimeters of ash has accumulated on the main island track of Tongatapu, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said. “The ashes proved to be more difficult to remove than expected,” explained Jonathan Veitch, in charge of the UN for the management of this crisis from Fiji. “We thought (the track) would be operational yesterday, but it hasn’t been fully cleared yet because ash has still fallen,” he said, adding that “about 100 or 200 meters are cleared per day. “.

Vessel HMAS Adelaide, of the Australian fleet, is about to set sail for Tonga with relief equipment on board. It should arrive at its destination in five days. Two New Zealand vessels, the HMNZS Wellington and the HMNZS Aotearoa, have also left for the archipelago and should reach it in about three days. In particular, they transport divers, drinking water and a desalination unit that can supply 70,000 liters per day.

A risk of contamination

The village on Mango Island, where an emergency beacon was triggered earlier this week, was completely destroyed. In several villages, only a few houses remained standing. A 65-year-old woman in Mango is one of three people confirmed dead, along with a 49-year-old man and British national Angela Glover.

Satellite images from Maxar Technologies show a large expanse of water where much of the volcano rose above the sea before the eruption. Only two relatively small volcanic islands remain emerged. The WHO said it feared “a contamination of water and food supplies” because of the risk of pollution by volcanic residues.

The government has advised people to stay at home, use masks when they go out and drink bottled water. Relief operations are also likely to be complicated by border restrictions due to Covid-19.

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