NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga: Frightened Tongans fled to higher ground Saturday after a massive volcanic eruption sent tsunami waves crashing onto the South Pacific island and triggered warnings as far as the US West Coast.
Dramatic images from space showed the moment the latest eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai sent a mushroom of smoke and ash into the air and a shockwave across the surrounding waters.
A tsunami wave measuring 1.2 meters (four feet) was observed in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.
Local resident Mere Taufa said she was in her house getting ready for dinner when the undersea volcano erupted — sending water surging into her home.
“It was massive, the ground shook, our house was shaking. It came in waves. My younger brother thought bombs were exploding nearby,” Taufa told the Stuff news website.
She said water filled their home minutes later and she saw the wall of a neighboring house collapse.
“We just knew straight away it was a tsunami. Just water gushing into our home.
“You could just hear screams everywhere, people screaming for safety, for everyone to get to higher ground.”
Tonga’s King Tupou VI was reported to have been evacuated from the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa and taken by police convoy to a villa well away from the coastline.
The volcano’s eruption lasted at least eight minutes and sent plumes of gas, ash and smoke several kilometers into the air.
Residents in coastal areas were urged to head for higher ground following the eruption — which came just a few hours after a previous tsunami warning was lifted on the island.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano sits on an uninhabited island about 65 kilometers north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa.
Its latest eruption was so intense it was heard as “loud thunder sounds” in Fiji more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, according to officials in Suva City — where images shared on social media showed large waves hitting the coast.
Tsunami warnings were issued for American Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Chile and Australia — where authorities said a swathe of coastline, including Sydney, could be hit by tsunami waves.
People in surrounding New South Wales state were “advised to get out of the water and move away from the immediate water’s edge.”
A tsunami warning was issued for the entire US West Coast — from the bottom of California to the tip of Alaska’s Aleutian islands — while tsunami waves triggered “minor flooding” in Hawaii according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
“Move off the beach and out of harbors and marinas in these areas,” advised the US National Weather Service, which predicted waves of up to two feet, strong rip currents and coastal flooding.
Fijian officials warned residents to cover water collection tanks in case of acidic rain fall.
Victorina Kioa of the Tonga Public Service Commission said Friday that people should “keep away from areas of warning which are low-lying coastal areas, reefs and beaches.”
The head of Tonga Geological Services, Taaniela Kula, urged people to stay indoors, wear a mask if they were outside and cover rainwater reservoirs and rainwater harvesting systems.