On January 14, a devastating tsunami struck the Tonga archipelago, a republic of 170 islands close to the center of the world’s largest ocean.
The islands, before the unprecedented tragedy, were home to at least 100,000 people. Total casualties are still unclear. Initially, only three deaths were reported — but the total losses are expected to rise exponentially in the coming days.
But Washington Post correspondent Michael Miller, in an early report from Sidney, Australia, reported that “an explosion occurred about 40 miles away from Tonga’s capital, shattering all her windows.” He added: “ It was far more powerful than an atomic bomb.”
Getting help from abroad was a top priority
“With some satellite phone connections restored after about two days,” according to Correspondent Miller, “volcanic ash that fell like sooty snow covered the main airport’s runway, making aid flights from abroad impossible.”
“We had people coming in from villages,” according to local radio journalist Marian Kupu, and the Tongan armed forces arrived quickly, along with local fire department volunteers. Getting the airport open to foreign relief efforts was vital. Ms. Kupu called the explosion “the loudest sound I ever heard.”
She knew it could only be one thing. An undersea volcano that had threatened Tonga for ages had finally blown up. A tsunami, she feared, would soon be on its way.
Securing help from abroad and opening the airport was urgent. With heavy equipment unavailable to clear its runway — in places covered with two feet of volcanic dust — became a top priority as many civilians were being treated at local hospitals or, tragically, being buried by their families.
“We had firefighters and people coming in from villages,” Reporter Kupu recalls, “along with fire department volunteers. Normally, to clear the runway for relief flights would take two weeks, but it took us only four days since we all came together.”
Tonga is remote and small. Yet its people are not giving up. They deserve help, and quickly, from the international community. USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (USAID/BHA) is providing $100,000 to support emergency response activities in Tonga.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More