World Exclusive: ‘One could see the huge smoke column from the volcano shoot straight up from the horizon into the sky, until you couldn’t see it anymore. It’s almost as if it was erupting into space itself.’
Alexandria, Virginia: In this edition of Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines we speak with Mr Tevita Motulalo, a veteran journalist, security analyst and strategic communications consultant from the Kingdom of Tonga.
Communications with Tonga have been largely cut off since a major volcanic eruption on 15 January broke the country’s underwater fiber optic cable and triggered a tsunami that was felt as far away as Japan and California. Mr Motulalo, who is in Tonga, answered questions by text during a brief window of stable communications.
Q: Can you describe what happened?
A: It started a few weeks earlier. The volcano had been spewing out ash and smoke for weeks, but because the usual wind direction is east-south-easterly, it carried the effluents northeast towards Fiji.
When there were signs of the volcano reigniting and showing signs of erupting. The National Meteorological Office did the best they could. But there’s relatively little public or political attention to key vital and security issues—including and especially non-traditional security threats like environmental disasters.
The Friday before the eruption, after more violent eruption were recorded and sulfuric fumes reached entirety of the main island Tongatapu, a tsunami warning was issued. The wind turned in the opposite direction because of a [weather] depression ongoing just above north Island of New Zealand and that whipped the huge ash column towards Tongatapu, where the majority of the population lives.
Evacuations were held, but it was all too novel. By the end of Friday all we saw were dramatic tidal shifts in the afternoon. And the tsunami warning issued earlier was cancelled.
On Saturday, at around 5pm in the afternoon, the first of the now very loud explosions were heard. It’s like the heavens were about to rip into pieces. There were very loud cracks not experienced in our lived experiences since antiquity—and the elders have lived through a few eruptions and national evacuations of their own. Glass and curtains were blown off the windows in places.
Shortly afterwards, the first of the waves arrived. It has to be said, none of the early warning systems worked. What worked was the loud explosions from the volcano. We were joking to each other that it was loud enough for even the deaf to hear it and the blind to see it.
Traffic started to jam on the main vein leading traffic out of the city towards the more elevated portions of the island. When the waves arrived, most of the people—having been aware of the tsunami warning issued a day earlier—had moved inland.
The warnings systems failed on the spot. The national meteorological office went offline with the previous day’s tsunami cancellation still up. No updates. And at the moment of the explosion, Cabinet was on the outskirts of the island for some occasion. They had to fight through the outpouring traffic jam to get back to stations.
One could see the huge smoke column from the volcano shoot straight up from the horizon into the sky, until you couldn’t see it anymore. It’s almost as if it was erupting into space itself. Then the huge vague shadow of dust mushroomed behind the heavens and covered half the sky.
An hour or so after the explosions, small volcanic pumice and pebbles of half a centimeter made landfall. Shortly afterwards, the ash arrived. It also arrived with a strong gust that blew the debris everywhere. This forced cars full of women and children to close their windows, which made the insides of cars like small ovens.
When the waves hit, the western strip of the island—about two miles wide—was overrun by the waves. Waves broke at one beach, ran through overland, and flowed out on the other side.
Immediately, internet and cellular communications were in and out. A few hours later, the power had to be cut as the piling ash was causing transformers to short. And so we were in a darkness with an orange-reddish hue, at the hilltops and evacuation centers inland.
It was almost Biblical: The strong gusts, the stinging falling pebbles and the blinding ash were accompanied by the wailing of women and the screeching cries of babies and infants—and the whispers among fathers and sons standing guard outside their vehicles that the waves have wiped out part of the island and are now heading their way. From fear, from the hot weather, lack of water, and the entire situation—if there was a picture of Sheol where there’s crying and gnashing of teeth that would probably be the closest I’d get.
Evacuees were stranded on the hills thirsty, right next to the national water company’s reservoirs. I managed to get through the line to a cousin at the company to ask for the facility operator to open up the taps.
But in a couple more hours the ash cloud waned to just sprinkles, and after a few hours it was clear the waters have retreated and the waves receded.
Q: What’s the situation like now?
A: We are living the experience of the shockwave of several Hiroshima bombs going off in the neighborhood. There have been three deaths. Most of the waterfront [in the capital, Nuku’alofa] is gone. The Hihifo strip was overrun from coast to coast. The port in the capital, the fuel depot and the fuel terminal lines are out. But people are amazing.
Our greatest challenge at moment is energy. The offloading lines from tankers were damaged. I’m not sure how much we have in stock. Tongatapu [the capital] has some leeway in whatever stocks of fuel are available. But it won’t last. They said there’s enough but I have a feeling they’re just saying that to quell fears of shortage. But if we are out of fuel, then water and power are out. All communications are out. Relief operations are out.
Food supply on the main island is ok. The outer islands may need food, and they were hit with the waves so their crops and soils are saltwater damaged. Damage surveillance is ongoing in Ha’apai [one of the outer island groups].
By the time the tsunami hit we were expecting a serious [atmospheric] depression potentially developing into a cyclone between us and Samoa. People are preparing for the next one.
Until yesterday [Saturday in Tonga] only local FM stations were still operational. Our communication infrastructure was almost completely totaled. There was no communication. All lines were down. Satellite phones are limited. We’re in the dark. So the situation in other parts of the country is not clear.
So far, there hasn’t been any adverse “issues” arising out of the recovery and there are no reports of extreme human suffering except loss of homes and entire villages dwellings, and the three fatalities. There were other injuries, but none reported on life support or life threatening apart, of course, from the systemic failures of institutions suffering from either incompetence, corruption, maladministration, or all simultaneously.
One good story? Atata island inhabitants were all wiped out into the ocean. All but one returned. A massive search operation went out. The missing guy managed to swim from Atata to the main island [around 13 kms, via two small islands], and reported himself found again at the central police station.
Q: How is the recovery going?
A: The recovery is handled by government to the best of its abilities. It’s a new government, just sworn in. Cabinet is still operating directly. But there is no “depth” in government planning. Everything is almost ad hoc. No contingency, no redundancy. And we’re in the middle of the cyclone season. We have full moons so there were King Tides last week. It was a perfect storm—we got away “easy” so far.
Communications infrastructure is laughable at moment in spite of the millions poured into it over the years. So super-redundant services like Starlink are absolutely relevant at this point. This applies to energy also in terms of decentralized virtual power plants and letting homes be net generators not just consumers.
The bureaucracy needs to upgrade its operational systems, and Parliament and Cabinet need to consider security (not securitization) properly and not relegate entirely to traditional military doctrine. Civil defense, which seems to work best thus far in mobilization against non-traditional security events, is something to consider.
Q: Are there any other issues developing that you are concerned about?
A: The retail industry, which feeds households with proteins, drinking water, and other household groceries, is majority controlled by Chinese investment. It has very often attempted price gouging in times of national shortage—and I’m not just talking about since the pandemic. There were a lot of instances where people turned up for water or food on the night of the tsunami and they shut their doors or credit to people in trouble. Which should be illegal.
Also in the event those shops get hit, they’ll be at the forefront of government assistance out of Tongan taxes. People might not too much mind them bribing officials to get into the country and make their fortunes out of Tongan poverty, but if they behave this way it’ll get really ugly. And the sentiment is starting to sour out of those reports.
Q: Anything you are watching in terms of foreign assistance?
A: We could really use something like a US Marines HA/DR logistics and training center in the region—maybe even Quad. Or during this crisis a visit from a Marine Expeditionary Unit or the sort of U.S. Navy deployment we used to see in the area in a time of crisis, like an LHD. In the meantime, China is about to offer huge assistance following the event.
Tevita Motulalo was the co-Founder of the Royal Oceania Institute, the Kingdom of Tonga’s independent think tank, and was formerly a Senior Researcher at Gateway House think tank, Mumbai. He was awarded his Masters from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal, India.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of democracies.