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Tonga: Death toll climbs to 2 following Saturday's volcano, tsunami

Tonga: Death toll climbs to 2 following Saturday's volcano, tsunami
The underwater volcanic eruption on Saturday has coated the Tonga island of Tongatapu in ash. Photo courtesy of New Zealand Defense Force/Website

Jan. 18 (UPI) -- New Zealand officials confirmed Tuesday that at least two people have died following Saturday's volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami in Tonga that left extensive damage in its wake.

On Saturday, the Hunga Tonga-hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano, located about 40 miles north of Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa, exploded, prompting tsunami alerts and advisories for as far away as the United States and Canada.

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Tongatapu, the main Tonga island, was hit by a 4-foot tsunami that has caused significant damage to its western coast, including to resorts and the northern Nuku'alofa waterfront while the eruption has coated it with a thick layer of ash, officials said.

In a statement to UPI, New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said authorities have informed the New Zealand High Commission in Tonga "that the confirmed death toll stands at two, including a British national."

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The other victim is a Tongan national, the ministry confirmed later Tuesday.

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Though the identities of the victims were not released, the British citizen has been identified by family as 50-year-old Angela Glover who was walking her dogs with her husband, James, when they were hit by the tsunami.

In a statement to local media, Glover's brother, Nick Eleini, said her body has been found.

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"I understand that this terrible accident came about as they tried to rescue their dogs," Eleini said.

James survived by managing to hold onto a tree, he said.

Power was severed for much of Tongatapu, but the New Zealand High Commission in Tonga said in a Facebook post Tuesday that it has been mostly restored though Internet and communication access remains limited.

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A international mobile phone network provider has set up an interim system on the main island, meaning limited 2G may be available later Tuesday.

Meanwhile, New Zealand has been trying to bring humanitarian assistance to the island, but said Tuesday in a statement ash on the Nuku'alofa runway must be cleared before a plane can land.

Because of the delay in reaching the impacted islands, HMNZS Wellington departed Tuesday from Devonport, a harbor suburb of Auckland, carrying supplies to assist Tonga as well as divers and experts to survey shipping channels and ports. A second Navy ship is expected to depart later in the day with water and humanitarian aid.

"Water is among the highest priorities for Tonga at this stage, and HMNZS Aotearoa can carry 250,000 liters, and produce 70,000 liters per day through a desalination plant," Nanaia Mahuta, the minister of foreign affairs, said in a statement.

The break in communications has complicated the disaster response, officials said, with the journey from New Zealand to Tong by water expected to take three days.

Though no more ash is expected to fall strong and unusual currents are expected to continue for at least another 24 hours, said GNS Science.

New Zealand's geoscience research consultancy service has told the foreign ministry that its modeling shows the most likely scenario is for ongoing eruptions in the next serval days to weeks with ongoing tsunami risk for Tonga and New Zealand.

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On Monday morning, a Royal New Zealand Air Force aircraft departed a base in Auckland to conduct reconnaissance of the damage, producing images showing large swaths of land covered in ash, which made it unable to land on Tongatapu.

A C-130 Hercules aircraft is on also on standby to deliver humanitarian aid once the airport runway is clear of ash, Mahuta said.

Officials said the supplies to Tonga, which is free of of COVID-19 infections, will be delivered without contact.

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