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First aid finally reaches Tonga after eruption, tsunami as tale of man surviving 27-hour swim emerges

With some communication lines restored, details of the destruction on the Pacific Island nation were becoming clearer, but accounts of dramatic escapes also emerged.
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The first aircraft carrying humanitarian supplies arrived in Tonga on Thursday, five days after the South Pacific island nation was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami that devastated communities and spoiled most of its drinking water.

With some communication lines restored, details of the destruction were becoming clearer but accounts of dramatic escapes also emerged.

The delivery of the aid brought in by aircraft from Australia and New Zealand was contactless to ensure Tonga remains free of the coronavirus. The flights were carrying water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene supplies and communications equipment. 

A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules landed in Tonga’s Fua’amotu International Airport, a defense spokesperson said, after a blanket of volcanic ash was cleared off the runway. An Australian Globemaster military transport aircraft also landed.

Australia said the assistance would help Tonga's government meet the community's needs and support the immediate clean-up efforts.AFP - Getty Images

Rear Adm. James Gilmour, the commander of New Zealand’s Joint Forces, said there had been a “mammoth effort” by Tongan troops “to clear that runway by hand. And they’ve achieved that this afternoon.”

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a deafening explosion on Saturday, sending tsunami waves rolling across the archipelago that killed at least three people and destroyed villages, resorts and many buildings and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.

Rachael Moore, Australia’s high commissioner to Tonga, said the loss of property had been “catastrophic.”

“Along the western beaches there is a moonscape where once beautiful resorts and many, many homes stood,” Moore told Australian radio, adding that drinking water was “an extremely high priority”.

Telephone links between Tonga and the outside world were reconnected late on Wednesday, though restoring full internet services was likely to take a month or more, according to the owner of the archipelago’s sole subsea communications cable.

Meanwhile tales of miraculous escapes, including that of a “real life Aquaman,” emerged from the islands. A 57-year-old Tongan man was being hailed after recounting how he had to swim at sea for about 27 hours after being swept away by the tsunami.

Lisala Folau, who lived on the small, isolated island of Atata which has a population of about 60 people, was swept out to sea when the waves hit land at about 7 p.m. on Saturday, he said in a radio interview to Tongan media agency Broadcom Broadcasting.

Image: Lisala Folau, a Tongan man who says he swam for around 27 hours after getting swept by tsunami, sits in Nuku'alofa
Lisala Folau, center, a Tongan man who says he swam for around 27 hours after getting swept to sea by Saturday's tsunami.Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting / Reuters

Folau said he was painting his home when he was alerted about the tsunami by his brother, and soon the waves had gone through his lounge.

He climbed on a tree to escape but when he got down another big wave swept him away, he said. The 57-year-old said he is disabled and cannot walk properly.

“I just floated, bashed around by the big waves that kept coming,” he told the radio station.

Folau said he kept floating, and slowly managed to swim 4.7 miles to the main island of Tongatapu, reaching the shore 27 hours later at about 10 p.m. on Sunday.

Reuters was unable to contact Folau or verify the events.

The story of Folau’s heroics went viral among Tongan groups on Facebook and other social media.

“Real life Aquaman,” said one post on Facebook, referring to the comic book and film chracter.

“He’s a legend,” said another post.

Atata, which is about a 30-minute boat ride from Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa, has been almost entirely destroyed in the tsunami that hit the islands. Tongan naval boats are still surveying the smaller islands and evacuating people to the main islands.