(Update 1: Adds details of NZAF flight, Tongan Olympian fundraiser, changes headline, lede, minor edits)
Sydney, Australia, Jan 20 (EFE).- The first plane carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief arrived in Tonga from New Zealand on Thursday after a “mammoth effort” to clear the capital’s airport runway of ash.
The South Pacific island nation was struck by a powerful eruption of an underwater volcano that triggered a tsunami over the weekend.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules landed at Tongatapu airport just after 4 pm, Commander of Joint Forces Jim Gilmour said, according to public broadcaster Radio New Zealand.
The C-130 flight was the first to arrive at the airport in Nuku’alofa where local authorities have been working around the clock since Saturday’s disaster to remove the thick layer of ash from the runway.
“There was a mammoth effort by His Majesty’s armed forces to clear that runway by hand,” Gilmour said.
The plane was carrying water containers, shelters, power generators and communications equipment, among other essential supplies, New Zealand’s foreign and defense ministers, Nanaia Mahuta and Peeni Henare respectively, said earlier in a joint statement.
The Polynesian country, which comprises 169 islands and has 105,000 inhabitants, is Covid-free and has recorded only one coronavirus infection since the start of the pandemic.
“No-contact Covid protocols are being adhered to rigorously,” Gilmour said, in order to prevent further crisis in the country.
The New Zealand government said that one of its patrol vessels, carrying hydrographic and dive personnel and a helicopter to assist with supply delivery, was also expected to arrive in Tonga on Thursday.
The vessel will review the state of the shipping channels and approaches to Tonga’s port as well as the structural integrity of the wharf, while an Australian boat, which will serve as a base for relief work, is getting ready to set sail.
The first batch of aid comes after international satellite communication was restored in recent hours and the first images of the situation in the country showing debris, cars covered in thick layers of ash, and fallen trees were released.
Meanwhile, Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofua, whose bare oiled torso set social media alight when he was flagbearer at the Rio, Pyeongchang and Tokyo Olympics, has raised over AU$527,000 ($381,000) in three days for those most in need and infrastructure through a GoFundMe page linked to his Instagram account.
“I am currently in training camp in Australia but am imobilising all the assistance I can to send to our beloved Tonga,” he wrote.
“My Father, the Governor of Haapai is on Tongatapu. At this stage we haven’t heard from him but are preparing for assistance for the country,” the athlete in taekwondo and cross-country skiing added.
The Tongan authorities were working to evacuate some 150 residents of the islands of Mango and Fonoifua to other less affected islands. The west of the country’s main island, Tongatapu, has also been severely damaged.
The death toll sits at three, although the damage and casualties have not yet been quantified because the country is currently cut off due to the rupture of an undersea cable that provides telephone and internet services.
Telecom operator Digicel said on Wednesday night that international satellite communication had been restored, which will serve to ease the situation while repairs are carried out on the submarine cable over the next four weeks.
The force of the tsunami was felt around the Pacific. EFE