Unless you live in Tonga. Then the massive Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano blast was a terrifying 40 miles away for most of the Polynesian nation’s 105,000 people. An estimated 18-megaton firebomb was followed by nine cataclysmic tsunamis lifting ocean levels as high as 49 feet and laying coastal communities and isolated outer islands to ruin under an ash-choked sky. There was barely time to react.
“We felt the shock waves vibrating through our bodies before the almighty bang of the eruption reached us, which sounded like the earth itself splitting open—followed by at least nine immensely powerful tsunamis coming at phenomenal speed,” recounts Mary Lyn Fonua, managing editor of Tonga’s news website, Matangi Tonga, who would sit through a traumatic night in the capital, Nuku’alofa, before surveying an utterly transformed main island of Tongatapu—home to 70 percent of the country’s population. “Photographing the destruction the next day was like stepping into another world.”
Tonga’s 170 islands are spread across an immense span of ocean for a collective land mass equaling about half of Oahu, HI. Fiji (Tonga’s “immediate” neighbor) is 500 miles away. New Zealand is 1,500 miles south.
Last January, when the country’s fiercest submarine volcano fully unleashed for the first time in nearly a millennium, Tonga was alone and unreachable for days before international aid arrived. Here are just a few of the harrowing stories.