Tonga volcano: distress signal detected in low-lying islands after eruption, as first death reported

A distress signal has been detected in an isolated, low-lying group of Tongan islands after Saturday’s huge volcanic eruption, even as most external communications remain down, and diaspora families anxiously await news.

Reuters reports that the UN detected the distress signal on Monday, prompting particular concern for the inhabitants of Fonoi and Mango. According to the Tonga government, 36 people live on Mango and 69 on Fonoi.

The news comes as most communication between Tonga and the outside world is still cut off, after the Pacific nation’s main communication cable was broken by the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano and subsequent tsunami.

Tongans around the world may be forced to wait weeks for regular contact to resume, after testing confirmed that the cable connecting the islands to the outside world was cut in at least one place.

A spokesperson for Southern Cross Cable, which operates other undersea cable networks across the region, said that testing by Fintel and Tonga Cable on Sunday afternoon “seems to confirm a likely cable break around 37km offshore from Tonga”.

The offshore nature of the break means it is more difficult and time consuming to repair, with a specialist cable repair ship being dispatched from Papua New Guinea. The spokesperson said reports indicated that “while timing is currently unconfirmed it is likely to be one to two weeks before they have repaired the cable, conditions willing”.

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.

Images from Australian and New Zealand defence force surveillance flights that travelled to the islands on Monday have not been released. But UN analysis of satellite imagery from the island of Nomuku found that almost all visible structures were covered with ash, and about 40% of visible structures were damaged.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that boulders and boats had washed ashore on Tongatapu, Tonga’s largest island, about 65km south of the volcano.

“Seeing some of those waves come in and peeling back fencelines and structures, you can see the force of those surges,” she said. “Everyone just wants to establish how wide scale that impact has been … we want to be in Tonga and on the ground as soon as we are possibly able to be.”

The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a briefing on Monday there was significant infrastructural damage around the main island of Tongatapu. “We are particularly concerned about two small low-lying islands – Mango and Fonoi – following New Zealand and Australian surveillance flights confirming substantial property damage,” they said.

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