Tongans living overseas are facing an anxious wait for news of loved ones after a volcano triggered a tsunami.
The underwater volcano erupted on Saturday, about 65km (40 miles) north of the capital Nuku’alofa.
The eruption, which was heard as far away as the US, caused waves higher than a metre to crash into Tonga.
Local authorities have not confirmed any deaths but communications are crippled, making it difficult to establish the scale of the destruction.
However, the brother of a British woman said she died after being swept away in the waves. Angela Glover, 50, was washed away while trying to save her dogs.
More than 10 000km away, two people drowned off a beach in northern Peru amid abnormally high waves.
Both New Zealand and Australia sent surveillance flights to find out more, with New Zealand saying there had been “significant damage” along the western coast of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island.
But the Red Cross gave some cause for hope, saying reports suggested the damage was not as bad as had been feared.
“We believe that from the information that we can put together that it is not as catastrophic in those major population centres as we first thought that it might be, so that’s really good news,” said Katie Greenwood, who is co-ordinating the organisation’s response from Fiji.
Tonga is virtually unreachable after a critical undersea cable connecting the Pacific islands to the outside world was severed. It may take up to two weeks to restore phone and internet lines.
But a distress signal has been detected from two small, isolated Tongan islands, the UN says.
For many Tongans living overseas, it has been two days since they have been able to speak to family and friends.
Petilise Tuima told the Sydney Morning Herald that the last time she spoke to her family was on Saturday afternoon when they were fleeing to higher ground.
“Everyone is calling each other within our Tongan groups, wanting to see if anyone has picked up or heard anything… We are just desperate,” she said.
The Red Cross said even satellite phones, used by many aid agencies, had poor service due to the effects of the ash cloud. The organisation estimates that up to 80 000 people may have been affected by the tsunami.
Alexander Matheou, the Red Cross’s regional director, said it was likely the volcanic dust and tsunami had contaminated Tonga’s water supplies.
“One of the greatest needs is to provide water purification and clean drinking water,” Matheou said.
Some officials have voiced concerns over relief efforts resulting in a spread of Covid in the country, which only recorded its first case in October.
“We don’t want to bring in another wave – a tsunami of Covid-19,” Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, told Reuters.
Tonga is made up of 170 islands scattered over about 700 000 sq km. About 100 000 people live in Tonga, the bulk of them on Tongatapu Island. (BBC)