Baptist pastors in Fiji could hear and feel the impact of a recent undersea volcano that erupted near Tonga on Saturday 15 January.
‘The sound and boom came across many miles,’ a Baptist spokesperson said. ‘Even some of our outlying islands had waves inundating villages on our shorelines.’
That’s only part of the reach of volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai’s eruption, which also triggered a tsunami and caused significant damage to the nation comprised of 170 islands, blanketing it in volcanic ash.
A distress signal had also been heard from two low-lying Tongan islands and three deaths have since been confirmed (as of 19 January), though the full extent of damage is unknown due to communication blackouts when underwater cables were cut. The cables connect Tonga’s telephones and Internet for its population of 105,697 to the rest of the world and repairs could take weeks.
Baptist World Aid Australia is monitoring the situation and will be responding with specific support, alongside other international relief organisations.
‘Because we work with a network of churches and aid partners throughout the region, we’re considering how best to serve our neighbours in Tonga during this time,’ said Melissa Lipsett, CEO of Baptist World Aid. ‘We know things will be difficult in Tonga and we are eager to help families and churches with both immediate and longer term needs.’
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is also expected to further impede relief efforts, considering Tonga is relatively free of the virus. The arrival of foreign relief staff and deliveries of supplies could put this status at risk as any assistance will likely be required to go through quarantine. And with army personnel and volunteers able to clear only a portion of a runway, planes will have difficulty landing.
As of 17 January, Australian Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja said there were initially no reports of mass injuries but there were reports of significant damage across the islands. An earlier distress signal that the United Nations received from Fonoi and Mango islands indicated that injury and casualty rates were likely to rise. Surveillance flights over one Tongan island, Nomuki, revealed that up to 40 percent of structures were damaged in the eruption and subsequent tsunami.
Other surrounding Pacific nations also felt the impact of the eruption, with Samoa recording the inundation of several coastal areas and Fiji reporting a minor tsunami which resulted in flooding, turbulent waves, and some volcanic ash.
‘We’re asking our faithful supporters to join us in prayer for the Tongan people,’ Melissa said. ‘During this distressing time, we pray they may know God is with them and that their friends across the Pacific stand ready to assist.’