NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (AFP) – Frightened Tongans fled to higher ground Saturday after a massive volcanic eruption that triggered tsunami warnings across the South Pacific, including the entire U.S. West Coast.
The latest eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano came just a few hours after a separate Friday tsunami warning was lifted due to the eruption.
Dramatic images from space showed the moment the eruption sent a mushroom of smoke and ash into the air and a shockwave across the surrounding sea.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said a tsunami wave measuring 1.2 metres (four feet) had been observed at Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa.
Mere Taufa said she was in her house getting ready for dinner when the volcano erupted.
“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 a police convoy to a villa well away from the coastline.
The initial 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.
The eruption was so intense it was heard as “loud thunder sounds” in Fiji more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, officials in Suva said.
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.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a “tsunami advisory” for American Samoa, saying there was a threat of “sea level fluctuations and strong ocean currents that could be a hazard along beaches”.
Similar warnings were issued by authorities in 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”.
Tsunami warnings were also issued for the entire U.S. West Coast, and waves triggered low-level flooding in Hawaii.