Tonga’s airport runway has finally been cleared of enough ash and debris to allow Australia and New Zealand military aircraft to touch down, five days after an underwater volcano erupted.
A Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster and a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules have been sent to the Polynesian island equipped with desperately needed humanitarian supplies, including drinking water, temporary shelters and communications equipment.
It comes after Tonga’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano erupted on 15 January, causing tsunami waves throughout the island nation, damaging entire villages, wiping out communications infrastructure and contaminating parts of the island’s drinking water.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Australia’s C-17 was also loaded with sweepers to assist in cleaning the remaining ash off of the runway, to allow for more aircraft landings.
Both Australia and New Zealand have previously sent surveillance aircraft to the area in order to assess the damage to critical infrastructure in Tonga, such as roads, ports and power lines, however, they were only able to do so from the air due to the debris on the runway.
“We are working closely with Tonga and listening to their needs and their requests,” Minister Dutton told 2GB Radio on Thursday.
The delivery of supplies will be contactless, led by locals on the ground, as Tonga hopes to maintain its COVID-free status. Each aircraft is due to spend around 90 minutes on the ground.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that he spoke with his Tonga counterpart Siaosi Sovaleni on Wednesday afternoon, and reiterated Australia’s priority remained delivering assistance to the nation in a COVID-free manner.
“I reassured him that Australia stands shoulder to shoulder with the Kingdom of Tonga as it responds to the undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami,” Mr Morrison said.
“I conveyed Australia’s deep sadness for the loss of life and the damage caused by the disaster and wished those injured a speedy recovery.”
Meanwhile, the HMAS Adelaide is set to be deployed from Brisbane on Friday, loaded with additional humanitarian and disaster relief supplies, as well as three Chinook helicopters.
It is expected Adelaide will take five days to travel from Brisbane to Tonga.