All the homes on one of Tonga's small outer islands have been destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami, with three people so far confirmed dead, the government said on Tuesday in its first update since the disaster.
With communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of the devastation after Saturday's eruption had so far mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.
But the office of Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said in a statement that every home on Mango island, home to about 50 people, had been destroyed, only two houses remained on Fonoifua, and Nomuka island had suffered extensive damage.
Mr Sovaleni's office said a 65-year-old woman on Mango Island and a 49-year-old man on Nomuka Island had been killed, in addition to the British national whose body was found on Monday. A number of injuries were also reported.
Tsunami waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the Ha’apia island group, where Mango is located, and the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the prime minister's office said. Residents were being moved to evacuation centres after 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.
Atata and Mango are between 50 and 70km from the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean when it erupted with a blast heard 2,300km away in New Zealand.
Aerial photographs reveal widespread damage
“Alarming” photographs taken from the air have revealed the full extent of damage caused by the tsunami.
Images taken by New Zealand Defence Force reconnaissance flights show scenes of devastation on the country's small outer islands, said Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie.
The NZDF images were posted unofficially on a Facebook site and confirmed by Mr Tu’ihalangingie.
“People panic, people run and get injuries,” Mr Tu’ihalangingie told Reuters. “Possibly there will be more deaths and we just pray that is not the case.”
Tonga police told the New Zealand High Commission the confirmed death toll stood at two, but with communications in the South Pacific island nation cut, the true extent of casualties was not clear.
Australia's minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said Tongan officials aimed to evacuate people from the isolated, low-lying Ha'apai islands group and other outer islands where conditions were “very tough, we understand, with many houses being destroyed in the tsunami".
The UN had earlier reported a distress signal was detected in Ha'apai, where Mango is located. The Tongan Mavy reported the area was hit by waves estimated to be between five and 10 metres high, said the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Atata and Mango are between about 50 and 70km from the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and was heard some 2,300km away in New Zealand when it erupted on Saturday.
Atata has a population of about 100 people.
“It is very alarming to see the wave possibly went through Atata from one end to the other,” said Mr Tu’ihalangingie.
British national Angela Glover, 50, was killed in the tsunami as she tried to rescue the dogs she looked after at a rescue shelter, her brother said, the first known death in the disaster.
A thick layer of ash blankets the islands, said the New Zealand High Commission, which was working to establish communications with smaller islands “as a matter of priority".
The archipelago's main airport, Fua’amotu International Airport, was not damaged in Saturday's eruption and tsunami, but heavy ashfall is preventing full operations, hampering international relief efforts.
The UN humanitarian office said Tongan officials said clearing the runway would take days, as it was being done manually, and would be fully operational Wednesday at the earliest.
People had had to leave the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu because of “significant damage”, OCHA said, while government ministers had broadcast warnings on radio against price gouging amid worries of supply shortages.
The Tongan government is expected to formally request aid from countries including Australia and New Zealand tomorrow. Both nations have C-130 military aircraft on standby, packed with emergency supplies.
“The priority now will to be get supplies to Tonga and the biggest constraint on that at the moment ... is the airport. There is still a significant amount of ash,” Mr Seselja said.
Tonga is a kingdom of 176 islands, of which 36 are inhabited, with a population of 104,494 people.
The archipelago has remained largely cut off from the world since the eruption, which damaged its main undersea communications cable.
Subcom, a US company contracted to repair subsea cables in the Asia-Pacific, said it was working with Tonga Cable Ltd to repair the cable that runs from Tonga to Fiji.