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New Zealand's Navy Sends Relief to Tonga After Volcanic Eruption

new zealand navy
HMNZS Wellington departs Auckland for Tonga, Jan. 18 (Royal New Zealand Navy)

Published Jan 18, 2022 8:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Royal New Zealand Navy has deployed two vessels to provide relief to the citizens of Tonga, where a massive volcanic eruption and tsunami have created widespread damage and cut off most communication with the rest of the world. 

The patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington departed Devonport Naval Base in Auckland on January 18, carrying equipment and supplies for the island of Tongatapu. The fleet oiler HMNZS Aotearoa - which has a large desalination plant, bulk water tanks and capacity for dry stores - will follow shortly, the New Zealand Defence Force said in a statement. 

Wellington is capable of conducting seabed surveys, a mission she performed after the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake in New Zealand, and she is carrying hydrographic survey specialists and salvage divers. Her crew will assess any obstructions in the harbor or damage to the wharf infrastructure, ensuring that aid and support can be delivered to the pier. Both vessels should arrive at Tonga in three days' time. 

Satellite imaging provided by Maxar Technologies shows signs of damage at the Port of Nuku'alofa. The before-and-after imagery shows shipping containers scattered in a previously well-ordered storage yard near the water's edge, as well as a thick coating of ash on roads, piers and buildings. The website for the Ports Authority Tonga was down Tuesday, like many Tongan websites, and could not be checked for verification. 

Because of heavy ash deposition at Tonga's primary airport, vessels are the only near-term option for resupplying the main island of Tongatapu. "Images show ashfall on the Nuku’alofa airport runway that must be cleared before a C-130 Hercules flight with humanitarian assistance can land,” said New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. 

Tonga is one of the few nations that is entirely free of COVID-19, thanks to its remoteness and its strict border controls. To ensure that the disease is not introduced by aid personnel, all supplies will be delivered in a "contactless way," according to New Zealand authorities.

Tonga's main subsea data cable was damaged during the eruption, and until it is repaired, its connection to the outside world is limited to a small number of satellite uplinks. The subsea cable repair ship Reliance is preparing to get under way from Port Moresby to fix the single fiber-optic data cable that connects Tongatapu with Fiji, according to operator SubCom. Since the cable runs near the site of the volcano, the repair vessel will have to get safety clearance before work can begin, according to Reuters.