18 Jan 2022

Call for donations as relief committee prepares to send care packages to families in Tonga

10:16 am on 18 January 2022

A newly-established relief committee is calling for donations of containers and goods to send to families in Tonga.

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Local MP for Panmure-Ōtāhuhu Jenny Salesa is co-chair of the Aotearoa Tonga Relief Committee. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Sela Jane Hopgood

The extent of the damage and need in Tonga following the weekend's eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai and the resulting tsunami remained unclear, as the Defence Force prepared to send aid to the islands.

With most communication links to the Pacific nation still severed, Tongans in New Zealand had little or no news about their friends and family.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta's office told RNZ no further updates can be provided until a surveillance flight returned from Tonga and the information was handed over to the Tongan government.

That Orion P3 landed back in New Zealand last night.

The UN had this morning detected a distress signal in an isolated, low-lying group of islands in Tonga, prompting concern for its inhabitants.

Jenny Salesa, local MP for Panmure-Ōtāhuhu and the co-chair of the newly-established Aotearoa Tonga Relief Committee told Morning Report everyone here is praying for people in Tonga.

"From what we've seen so far, it's really heartbreaking what's happening on the ground."

The community here were worried and anxious they have been unable contact their family back home or by email because the internet is still down, she said.

The committee is coordinating care packages to send to Tonga from families in New Zealand.

"They're really just worried about their safety. It's basically not knowing whether they are well, not knowing whether any of their family members are missing or [have] been washed out to sea. It's basically that lack of communication that is worrying to people back here in New Zealand."

Salesa had Tongan people living in the United States and in Australia contact her with similar worries.

"I was able to connect via Zoom with one of the church ministers from Ha'apai two nights ago now and he actually told us there is damage to houses in Ha'apai, blanked in ash as well, but the best news from him though is as far as he knows, from the main island of Ha'apai, no lives have been lost."

There is significant damage to the western coast of Tonga's main island of Tongatapu.

The relief committee was appealing for donations from container companies and families in New Zealand.

"Our committee is voluntary, we do not have any resources at this time and we would gladly accept donations of containers at no cost please so that we can help families in Tonga.

"If there are families in New Zealand who would like to donate, we would also accept donations from non-Tongans and companies, because of course, there are families in Tonga who don't have direct families here in Aotearoa New Zealand."

The care packages would be sent to village chiefs who would then distribute these to families without connections to New Zealand.

"This is work that we have done, this is what families overseas usually do when natural disasters hit in the Pacific."

The containers would be filled with groceries and non perishable food like flour, rice and sugar.

Impact of volcanic ash

Canterbury University Disaster Risk and Resilience researcher Thomas Wilson says volcanic ash can create a respiratory hazard for people and those with conditions such as asthma and can contaminate water.

"The challenge particular in Tonga with reliance in some areas on rain water tanks where rain water is being collected from roofs of other surfaces, is that the ash can contaminate those."

It's best to avoid drinking the water and to clean the roof if possible to allow new rain water to clean out the ash, he said.

"Just being in an ashy environment it can be quite irritating to your skin and eyes, it's often just best to stay out of it and avoid it if you can and where that's not practical, just to wear protective gear."

Wilson said ash needed to be removed from crops as soon as possible and plants could often come back to life if they weren't structurally damaged.

Crops may bounce back in the next few weeks to months, he said.

When there is about 2cm of volcanic ash fall, like what is being reported on Nuku'alofa, roads would become sticky and ash could short circuit electrics, he said.

"Giving that there was heavy rain yesterday, that was probably a good thing given that it would have washed a lot of that ash off electrical infrastructure and hopefully this means that there's not too many challenges."

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