Tonga eruption and tsunami: Family fear for fellow residents on island of Nomuka

By Sam Olley of RNZ

A family whose village is one of the closest in the world to the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano is anxiously awaiting news from fellow residents of Nomuka Island.

The island is part of the Ha'apai group and is around 70km from the volcano that erupted for eight minutes yesterday, raining ash and pumice down on neighbouring islands and causing a tsunami at least 1.2m high, that flooded streets and buildings.

The Sheen family have lived on Nomuka Island since 2014 but are currently in New Zealand for scheduled maintenance on their catamaran.

They run a whale-watching business from Nomuka, that has a population of fewer than 500 people.

The family visited Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai in June last year and camped at the volcano overnight.

Dave Sheen is fearing for the lives of Nomuka villagers, who live in very "basic" housing.

The highest point on the island is less than 40m above sea level, but there is a telecommunications tower there, and a home where people may have sheltered.

Friends are house-sitting the Sheens' property that faces the volcano, and a friend was posting video of the eruption on social media last night, when it suddenly stopped.

"A video of waves coming into the village. They came up over the little front road and then receded and you could see another wave coming but then it cut out. And that was the last we heard... We are just hoping they got to higher ground."

The Sheens' home is right on the beach and was damaged last year by waves from Cyclone Harold.

"They actually came through our kitchen and did some damage, and we ended up moving the building further back. We didn't move it back very far."

Seeing satellite footage of the eruption and the tsunami waves spreading thousands of kilometres around the Pacific Ocean has been "ridiculous" for the family, and "it's not a good feeling".

"It's very hard to fathom, and it's even harder to swallow, that we haven't got communications there."

Sheen said it was "incredible" thinking back to camping on the volcano last year, but his family was cautious.

"We had a fast boat so we had a quick getaway if we had to. We had that plan in place."

But he said there were signs the volcano was "very ready to go".

"I was picking up a plastic drum that we'd found on the beach and putting it on a paddleboard ... As I picked up the drum with the weight, my feet kind of went into the sand a little bit - this is actually in the sea, about a metre off the shore - and my feet started burning.

"So the sand was that hot underneath. I had to actually drop the drum and pull my feet out of the sand."

He said Nomuka islanders had practised tsunami evacuations, and typically lived "self-sufficient" lives, relying on rainwater, and plantations of fruit and vegetables for food.

"Who knows what's happened with the ash on those food supplies."

His daughter, Dior Sheen, said she had been "in shock" seeing and hearing the effect on Tongans.

She is also concerned for her family's horses, chickens, dogs and cats.

"We're trying to just not think the worst," she said.

"We haven't been able to reach anyone. I doubt anyone on the island actually has a working sat [satellite] phone."

Her "jaw dropped" when she saw imagery of the eruption from space.

"I was just like: 'Are you kidding me? You can see that from space?' I think it's terrifying, but also really fascinating, but really sad, and scary for everyone there. We have so many friends there."