Tsunami hits Tonga after underwater volcanic eruption

People have been forced to flee their homes, and streets and buildings have flooded, as tsunami waves crashed into Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, following a huge underwater volcano explosion.

The eruption at 0410 GMT on Friday of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano, located about 65km (40 miles) north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, caused a 1.2-metre tsunami, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said.

The eruption – captured in satellite images that show a huge plume of ash, steam and gas rising from the ocean – was heard and felt as far away as in Fiji and Vanuatu, where people reported feeling the ground and buildings shake for hours.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or the extent of the damage in Tonga, but videos posted to social media showed huge waves in coastal areas, swirling around homes and buildings.

Communications and power were reportedly out across Tonga’s main island, and the government called up military reserves to assist with the disaster response.

Islands Business reported that a convoy of police and military troops evacuated King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore, and local news site Kaniva Tonga reported long lines of traffic as thousands of people attempted to reach higher ground across the main island.

Dr Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau, a project coordinator working with the Tongan parliament said the explosion had led to a fall of “ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky”.

Tsunami waves of 2.7 ft (82 cm) were observed by gauges in the Tongan capital, and waves of 2 feet in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

The Fijian government issued a tsunami warning, telling people in coastal parts of the country to move to higher ground due to “larger than usual waves”. There were reports that some Fijian villages had been inundated and families evacuated.

A warning was issued in Samoa, urging people to stay away from the coast until further notice.

The US-based monitor later cancelled warnings for the US territory of American Samoa and Hawaii but said the tsunami remained a threat for parts of the Pacific nearer the volcano.

Jese Tuisinu, a television reporter at Fiji One, posted a video on Twitter showing large waves washing ashore, with people trying to flee from the oncoming waves in their cars. “It is literally dark in parts of Tonga and people are rushing to safety following the eruption,” he said.

New Zealand’s emergency management agency issued an advisory on tsunami activity for its northern and eastern coasts, with the areas expected to experience strong and unusual currents, and unpredictable surges at the shore.

On Friday, the volcano sent ash, steam and gas up to 20km into the air, with a radius of 260km, Tonga Geological Services said in a Facebook post.