Tonga’s twin disasters a reminder of our vulnerabilities

By The Editorial Board 18 January 2022, 6:00AM

The violent eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano in Tonga and the devastating tsunami that followed is a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature.

The volcanic eruption exposed the susceptibility of a Pacific island nation, as all communication including the internet went offline, hours after the tsunami waves struck.

Two days after the twin disasters, the island kingdom remains cut off from the rest of the world, making it difficult for authorities on the ground as well as the international community to determine the impact of the disasters.

Interestingly social media posts in recent weeks by Tongan authorities including the Tonga Geological Services, showed that they had been monitoring the seismic activity of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano in recent months. But no one expected the magnitude of Saturday’s volcanic eruption and the tsunami that followed. 

The underwater volcano, which has been erupting intermittently since last December, erupted around 5.30pm local time to send plumes of ash, steam and gas rising 20 kilometres into the air. 

A tsunami followed the eruption with live-streamed videos shared on social media showing waves crashing into public buildings, churches and roads with local motorists driving away to escape a moving wall of seawater.

We sympathise with the communication challenges that Tongans living outside the kingdom, including those who are resident in Samoa are having, in their attempts to confirm if their families are safe and out of harm’s way.

The disasters that hit our Polynesian neighbours on Saturday should also serve as a wake-up call for us, especially the relevant agencies within the Government that are tasked with disaster risk management.

We acknowledge the efforts of the Ministry of National Resources and Environment, through the Disaster Management Office (D.M.O.), in raising awareness on tsunamis and promoting community preparedness in recent years.

The 2009 tsunami triggered by an 8.1 magnitude submarine earthquake, which occurred along the Tongan trench subduction zone in the Samoan Islands region and tragically claimed 149 lives in Samoa, justified the need for local authorities including the D.M.O. to be vigilant.

But last Saturday’s massive underwater eruption and its immediate impact on the public and key infrastructure in Tonga should compel officials in Samoa to review our level of preparedness in the event of a similar disaster affecting the country.

Video footage shared on social media platforms such as Facebook showed Tongan families gathering on the coastline on Saturday, a lot of them with their smartphones, hoping to record the looming disaster as the volcanic eruptions continued to build up to the major one at 5.30pm.

So was there a disconnect between the warnings issued by the Tongan authorities and some of their citizens who gathered on the coast unfazed by the impending disaster?

Or did the fact that the volcanic eruption was underwater rather than being above sea level contribute to people downplaying the seriousness of the threat?

There are lessons to be learned from the Tongan twin disasters on Saturday and we can only hope no lives were lost when 2.7 feet waves from the tsunami landed on the shores of the islands.

Unfortunately, Tonga and neighbouring island nations including Samoa are not out of the woods. Experts have warned that the submerged Tongan volcano is located in one of the planet’s most geologically unstable regions and the eruptions would continue, consequently putting us all in a vulnerable position.

Retired Australian geologist currently resident in Savai’i, Tuapou Warren Jopling, believes the region could be in for months or even years of “volcanic unrest”. American volcanologist and geologist, Timothy Catron is of the view that more tsunamis could be expected until the edifice of the submerged volcano stabilises.

So how can our tsunami preparedness be taken to the next level in anticipation of a similar disaster in the future? For starters let’s make sure the tsunami sirens in villages that line the coast of both Upolu and Savai’i are in good working condition and tested on a monthly basis.

And tsunami drills and evacuation plans involving the community are back on the village councils’ agenda for the new year.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tonga in this difficult time as they begin the work of rebuilding their nation.

By The Editorial Board 18 January 2022, 6:00AM
Samoa Observer

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