In the wake of an underwater volcano eruption and a devastating tsunami, Tonga's government says the Pacific nation has been hit by an "unprecedented disaster" — but international aid agencies are mobilizing to help.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on Saturday sending clouds of ash and toxic gasses into the air and triggering a tsunami that struck Tonga, shattering buildings, severing communication lines, contaminating the water supply and leaving at least three people dead and many more injured and displaced. The full scale of the damage remains unknown.

International aid began to arrive today, with military planes from Australia and New Zealand carrying water containers, kits for shelters, generators and hygiene supplies, among other essential items. But getting these items into the hands of the people who need it is tricky, not only because of the damage caused by the blast, but because of the pandemic as well.

Sudarsan Pattnaik creates 'Pray for Tonga' sand sculpture
A sand sculpture of the massive volcanic eruption and tsunami alert in Tonga created by the Indian sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik in Puri © Getty Images

Tonga has remained effectively COVID-free for the past two years, recording only one case last October, and there are fears imported infections from aid workers would could derail the relief and recovery efforts, overload the health system and lead to more deaths.

Tonga started its vaccination rollout last April and 60% of the population is fully vaccinated, but that means 40% of its roughly 107,000 population is vulnerable to potentially serious infections.

The country is operating strict border controls to keep COVID-19 out. As a workaround, aid agencies are using remote and contactless assistance. "All current support is being delivered in a contactless way," New Zealand's defense minister, Peeni Henare, said in a statement. "The delivery of supplies will be contactless and the aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand."

Unicef's coordinator for the Pacific Islands, Jonathan Veitch, told the BBC: "we have staff and partners in country and we can plan with them and support them without entering Tonga.

"We helped vaccinate the entire country, so [contactless delivery] is feasible."

Officials are in discussions around long-term options for support, including quarantine measures for specialists who need to enter the country. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) confirmed it has "disaster experts in the region who are coordinating response efforts with the government of Tonga and humanitarian partners."

How to help Tonga in the wake of the tsunami

In the meantime, if you would like to help through responsible donations, here are some of charitable organizations assisting in Tonga's recovery effort:

A GoFundMe fundraiser has been launched by Pita Taufatofua, the flag bearer for Tonga in the 2016 Olympics, to raise $1 million for disaster relief. As of Thursday, the campaign had collected more than $557,000 of its $1 million goal.

Meanwhile, Saturday's tsunami triggered an oil spill off the coast of Peru, devastating marine life along Peru's Pacific Coast including guano birds, seagulls, terns, sea lions, and dolphins, according to the conservation group Oceana. Ecological clean-ups are underway.

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