Cut off by volcano, Tongans relieved as contact restored

In this image from video, Vice President of the Tonga Chamber of Commerce in Australia Koniseti Liutai unpacks relief donations for Tonga from a vehicle Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Sydney, Australia.  During an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, Liutai said that when the volcano cut the only fiber optic cable to the remote Pacific island nation, he and Tongans living abroad wouldn't could not know for days how their loved ones were.  .  (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

In this image from video, Vice President of the Tonga Chamber of Commerce in Australia Koniseti Liutai unpacks relief donations for Tonga from a vehicle Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. During an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, Liutai said that when the volcano cut the only fiber optic cable to the remote Pacific island nation, he and Tongans living abroad wouldn’t could not know for days how their loved ones were. . (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

PA

As the enormous Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano erupted on Saturday, Tongans around the world watched their loved ones livestream images of clouds of ash, gas and steam rising from the depths .

Then darkness.

The eruption severed Tonga’s only fiber optic cable, knocking the entire Pacific archipelago offline and unable to communicate with the rest of the world – and leaving loved ones terrified of what might have happened.

“It was absolutely crazy,” said Koniseti Liutai, a Tongan who lives in Australia.

“We were talking with family and relatives as they excitedly showed us the activities of the volcano, then we heard the explosion and the big bang and everything went black,” he said. “Then the next piece of information we got was the tsunami warning and then the tsunami that hit; we were all absolutely fearing the worst.

It wasn’t just family and friends who couldn’t pass. Huge ash clouds made relief communication by satellite phone nearly impossible, and world leaders couldn’t even get in touch with their Tongan counterparts to see what help they needed.

As the ashes cleared, satellite communication improved and Tonga’s telecom operator Digicel said it was able to restore international calling services to some areas on Wednesday evening.

He warned, however, that due to the high number of calls and the limited capacity of his satellite link, people might need to repeatedly try to get through – something Liutai, vice president of the Tonga Chamber of Commerce in Australia.

“My first direct information was this morning,” he said Thursday. “My daughter, after 100 phone calls day and night, managed to reach my aunts, my mother’s sisters, and we were in tears of joy – it was three in the morning, but for us it felt like the middle of the day; we were so motivated and so happy.

So far, three people have been confirmed dead after the volcanic eruption 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, and the subsequent tsunami. Several small settlements on outlying islands have been wiped off the map, according to the Red Cross and official reports, requiring the evacuation of several hundred residents.

As some communications resumed, more photos began to emerge of the destruction, showing the once verdant islands turned charcoal black by a thick layer of volcanic dust.

The coasts are littered with debris, as people work to clear the streets and driveways.

The 2-centimeter (0.78-inch) layer of ash that rendered the runway at Fua’amotu International Airport unusable has now been cleared, and the first flights carrying fresh water and other aid have arrived Thursday.

A repair vessel is sent from Papua New Guinea to work on the submarine cable, but it will take time to get to Tonga and the company in charge estimates that repairing the line could take more than a month .

Since the cable crosses the volcanic area, any further volcanic activity could completely sabotage even this timeline.

For Liutai, who runs a business in Tonga, regular visits have kept him in close contact in the past, but with travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has come to rely on video calls. like many other Tongans living abroad.

With that possibility now cut off, at least for the foreseeable future, he hopes at least that better telephone connections will soon be available so that Tonga’s 106,000 people can better reach the outside world to let their friends and family know what’s going on. past.

“It’s something we’ve become so used to, talking to each other and sharing information with the ease of social media,” the 52-year-old said. “But when something scary happened and you fear the worst, and even the government statement was general without any information, we were all nervous wrecks.”

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