Aerial images prepared by the New Zealand defence force for the Tongan government have been leaked online and show some areas have had “catastrophic” devastation inflicted by the tsunami and volcanic eruption while others were relatively unscathed.
The 40 aerial pictures show some areas blanketed with ash, with damaged buildings, while others show parts of the country that appear unscathed.
They were taken by the New Zealand defence force during a reconnaissance flight on Monday and put together in a report for the Tongan government. The photos were then leaked online. The Guardian has confirmed the provenance of the photos.
After the reconnaissance flight, the New Zealand defence force shared a handful of photos with media, most of them showing defence personnel at work, rather than shots of the islands. The 40 leaked images paint a much fuller picture of the damage to the country, and include annotations about the severity of damage.
Many areas were assessed as having limited damage, such as ash on building roofs, pools of surface flooding or debris.
But others were judged to have sustained “catastrophic” damage, according to notes on the images. Atata island was noted to have “a large number of buildings missing. Remaining structures probably had flood damage. Multiple trees were uprooted, with debris throughout.”
Fonoifua Island was said to have sustained “extensive damage … with all but the largest buildings destroyed or severely damaged”.
Mango Island, a remote low-lying island home to 69 people, was assessed as having “catastrophic damage”. A distress sign was detected from Mango Island on Monday by the UN prompting concern for inhabitants.
“Catastrophic damage was observed with the entire village destroyed. Temporary tarpaulin shelters had been erected on the island’s higher areas. Debris was observed throughout the village,” said the annotated image.
The images also gave a sense of the damage to Tonga’s infrastructure sustained during the tsunami and volcani eruption. The defence force said there had been “limited” damage to the Fua’amotu International Airport’s south-eastern runway, but that it was currently “unserviceable” due to ash covering the runway.
However, the defence force noted that an operation to clear ash from the runway was under way, with vehicles and people visible from the air.
“Clearance operations by shovel and wheelbarrow were under way on the SE end of the runway. No heavy excavation machinery was observed,” a note on the image said. The defence force also noted that airport buildings appear intact, though there was a layer of ash on the surfaces.
The report noted that Nuku’alofa port in the capital had “limited to moderate damage” with some surface flooding and road access to the wharf obstructed by fallen containers, ash and other debris. The Faleniu gas station on Uiha Island was assessed as “serviceable”, as was the Pangai ferry terminal, the wharf at Ha’ano and the bridge between Koulo and Fangale’ounga.
Little has been heard from Tonga since the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano and subsequent tsunami on Saturday, after the Pacific nation’s main communication cable was broken.
It may be weeks before the cable can be repaired, due to difficulty getting the repair ship from Papua New Guinea to Tonga, and safety concerns for the crew of the ship, who would be operating in waters not far from the volcano, meaning Tongans around the world may be forced to wait weeks for regular contact to resume.
On Tuesday, New Zealand’s ministry of foreign affairs and trade said there had been two confirmed deaths in Tonga from the disaster, one of which was a British national.
There have been no official confirmations of casualties from Tongan authorities, but the family of Angela Glover, a British woman living in Tonga who went missing in the tsunami, reported on Monday that her body had been found. The 50-year-old, who had been living in Tonga since about 2015, was swept away by the tsunami.
The Australian defence force also sent a surveillance plane on Monday, to assess damage to critical infrastructure such as roads, ports and power lines.
Australia and New Zealand have each pledged $1m in initial aid to Tonga. New Zealand has dispatched two naval ships carrying water and other aid supplies.