Tonga eruption and tsunami: Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni says some displaced residents may permanently relocate

Tonga's Prime Minister says some residents of outer islands wiped out by the tsunami may permanently relocate rather than return to their homeland.

Siaosi Sovaleni says he has long-term concerns about the mental health of his people but praises New Zealand for its support.  

He was less than a month into his role as Tonga's Prime Minister when the eruption occurred on January 14.

"I was at home [when it happened]. There was a prayer group that visited me, so we were just starting to have our session and then all these loud noises came. At first we thought it was thunder, but then we started feeling all this vibration," Sovaleni tells Newshub.

Waves inundated homes and darkness fell over the kingdom as ash filled the skies. 

"A very terrifying event. We were there, early evening, the sun was still up and in less than half an hour it was nighttime."

Mango Island, one of the closest to the volcano, was overwhelmed. All homes were destroyed. Damage on Atata Island was also described as "catastrophic". 

Initially residents from Mango were evacuated to nearby Nomuka Island, but Sovaleni says it wasn't suitable given both the hospital and police station on Nomuka were knocked down. 

Residents have now been transferred to the main island, Tongatapu.

"So we've got these two communities in some of our evacuation halls," he says.

He says future living arrangements for the displaced are being discussed.

"Discussing with them whether they want to go back to the islands or relocate over to Tongatapu. So those are some of the issues we are dealing with right now," Sovaleni says.

"A lot of them are still rattled by what happened, but the discussion is ongoing. We are giving them a chance to settle down before having those hard questions and talking about where they want to end up. Whether we look at settling them in Tongatapu or moving them back to the islands."

For a week, volunteers have worked day and night in Auckland to fill 25 containers with aid, and on Wednesday they were loaded for shipping. It's expected the supplies of non perishable food and water will arrive in Nuku'alofa on Monday. 

"Hopefully as these [containers] travel, when they arrive, that hope and Ofa, that love comes with these containers," says Sir Michael Jones, Matson Shipping strategic development manager.

Sovaleni says Tonga is "very thankful" for the assistance from neighbouring countries.

"A big Malo to the Tongans over there in New Zealand."

And he knows help will be required for many months to come. Food, water and shelter remain the most critical items needed on the ground in Tonga. Next will be rebuilding homes, but the Prime Minister has an even greater long term concern - the mental wellbeing of the Tongan people.

"Rebuilding houses, we can do that relatively quickly. We can complete it in a couple of months. But we do believe that the mental health of the people might take a little bit longer."

It's hoped the offering from the Tongan-New Zealand community will help ease that burden.