In its first official update since Saturday's eruption of the submarine Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano, the Tongan government on Tuesday confirmed the deaths of three people and several other injuries and outlined the extent of community destruction.
Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said all houses on the island of Mango, where 36 people live, were destroyed. Only two houses are left on the island of Fonoifua, and extensive damage was reported on the island of Nomuka, where 239 people live, he said.
"An unprecedented catastrophe hit Tonga," Sovaleni said, adding a "volcanic sponge flag" extended to cover all of the country's about 170 islands - 36 of which are inhabited - affecting the entire population of more than 100,000 people.
According to experts, the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano was probably the largest volcanic event recorded since Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.
On Tuesday, New Zealand's foreign ministry warned that further eruptions of the volcano were likely, posing a tsunami risk.
The estimate was based on modeling by GNS Science, a New Zealand geological research institute, the ministry said. "The most likely scenario is ongoing outbreaks in the next few days to weeks, with a sustained tsunami risk for Tonga and New Zealand," it said.
The eruption on Saturday generated tsunami waves up to 49 feet (15 meters) high that hit the west coast of Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, and the 'Eua and Ha'api islands.
A UN spokesman said an initial assessment by the Tongan authorities found that 100 houses had been damaged and 50 destroyed on Tongatapu, the country's main island where the majority of the population lives. No evacuation centers are open on the main island, and displaced people mostly live with large families.
On 'Eua, 89 people are in evacuation centers, the spokesman said, adding that information from outer islands is still sparse.
Race to provide assistance to Tonga
Pictures show entire island communities that were once lush and green, now covered in thick, gray ash. Many homes appear to be damaged or completely destroyed.
Widespread stagnant basins of salt water, combined with the volcanic ash, pollute drinking water sources, according to the Red Cross.
Delivery of aid was hampered by ash fall covering Tonga's Fua'amotu International Airport runway, forcing New Zealand to send two naval ships to help with recovery - but they will not arrive until Friday.
With cleanup work underway, rescue workers are on the run to provide safe drinking water to the island nation while struggling with the shortage.
"Ensuring access to clean drinking water is a critical immediate priority," said Katie Greenwood, head of the Pacific delegation to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, pointing to the growing risk of diarrhea and diseases such as cholera.
The World Health Organization (WHO) will not send international aid teams to Tonga because of the risk of bringing Covid-19 into the community, according to Sean Casey, WHO's Pacific Covid-19 incident manager.
Tonga has performed "extremely well" with their vaccine rollout with more than 80% fully grafted, Casey said. The country closed its borders to international travelers near the beginning of the pandemic and has used this time to prepare its population and health systems for an outbreak, he added.
"We have lots of natural disasters in this part of the world and you do not want to have to deal with multiple emergencies at the same time if it can be avoided," Casey said.
The WHO is still working on sending supplies to Tonga, including telecommunications tools such as satellite phones, water remediation equipment and materials to repair and build shelters.
"Everyone in Tonga, every family in the city is affected by this," Casey said. "That's always the case in the Pacific. The numbers look very small, but the relative impact on a very small country is massive."
Tonga is largely cut off from the world
Tonga's communications systems remain severely limited after damage to a central submarine cable cut off international and inter-island calls, New Zealand's foreign ministry said on Tuesday.
According to the ministry, an international mobile network provider has set up a temporary system on Tongatapu using a dish that could restore 2G connections. But this "will be limited and incoherent," the ministry said.
Many Tongans living outside the country are now facing a daunting wait to reconnect with their loved ones back home while rescue workers try to rescue the submarine cable.
Repairs are not expected to begin until February 1, and it may take another two weeks thereafter to repair the cable, according to a company assisting with the work.
"Just received word that our family on the main island of Haapai is safe and that our Ha'apai home 'Fuino' is still standing! It's over 100 years old and has been through many cyclones and now a tsunami," said Taufatofua Wednesday. "Still nothing from my father or our family on Kotu and the surrounding lower islands."
Tongan-Australian artist and activist Seini Taumoepeau told Reuters that her "worst fear is always that you will not see the people you love again," adding that she has not had contact with anyone from Tonga since before the tsunami hit.
The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai Volcano, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Tonga's Fonuafo'ou Island, lies underwater between two small islands at about 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) high from the seabed, with about 328 feet (100 meters) visible above sea level.
Researchers said it has erupted regularly over the past few decades.
The most recent eruption began in December 2021, when gas, steam and ash flags rose about 12 kilometers into the air. The volcano erupted again on January 14, and the massive eruption on January 15 sent shock waves around the world, triggering tsunami waves that could be felt thousands of miles away, killing at least two people in Peru.