New Zealand landed its first aid delivery in Tonga when an Air Force Hercules touched down just after 4pm on Thursday.
The plane was on the ground for just 90 minutes delivering the hygiene and food supplies following the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai volcano on Saturday.
The delivery was done in a contactless way to avoid Covid-19 transmission. The Hercules will arrive back in New Zealand around 10pm tonight, but could set out again on Saturday.
“We were .. aware that water, food hygiene, shelter – all of those basic needs – were going to be threatened,” Commander of Joint Forces New Zealand, Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour, told media gathered outside Defence House in Wellington.
Two Defence Force ships are also on the way to Tonga and will arrive on Thursday and Friday.
HMNZS Wellington was due to arrive on Thursday evening, followed by the 24,000-tonne HMNZS Aotearoa the next day, carrying 25,000 litres of fresh water.
HMNZS Canterbury, currently at sea, would return to Auckland pick up more supplies on Friday, and then set off for Tonga.
Gilmour said they expected disruption due to damage in the harbour. The teams cleaning up were “going to have to get on with it” to ensure the ships could dock.
He stressed that New Zealand wasn’t “trying to get ahead” of a formal request for aid, rather to ensure they were in the best position to react quickly should it be required.
Gilmour said in the coming week we could see up to three more flights from New Zealand into Nuku’alofa. No further ship sailings were planned.
The ships had enough supplies to sustain the crews for 30 days. If their presence was required for longer than that, supplies would have to be sent to them. Gilmour said they did not want to be a burden by having to rely on Tonga’s food and water supplies.
New Zealand had prior experience, in its own backyard and elsewhere in the Pacific, with the aftermath of volcanic eruptions.
Aid had been delivered contactlessly to Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Harold, to minimise risk of spreading Covid-19.
Gilmour said Defence Force crews would have no contact with people on the ground, all crew were wearing PPE, and supplies would be sanitised.