SYDNEY - The Pacific Island nation of Tonga was virtually cut off from the rest of the world Monday, after a massive vol­canic blast that crippled com­munications and stalled emer­gency relief efforts.

It is two days since the Hun­ga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai vol­cano exploded, cloaking Tonga in a film of ash, triggering a Pa­cific-wide tsunami and releas­ing shock waves that wrapped around the entire Earth.

But with phone lines still down and an undersea inter­net cable cut -- and not expect­ed to be repaired for weeks -- the true toll of the dual erup­tion-tsunami disaster is not yet known. Only fragments of in­formation have filtered out via a handful of satellite phones on the islands, home to just over 100,000 people.

Tonga’s worried neighbours are still scrambling to grasp the scale of the damage, which New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern said was believed to be “significant”. Both Wellington and Canberra scrambled re­connaissance planes Monday in an attempt to get a sense of the damage from the air.

And both have put C-130 military transport aircraft on standby to drop emergency supplies or to land if runways are deemed operational and ash clouds allow. 

There are initial reports that areas of the west coast may have been badly hit.

Australia’s international de­velopment minister, Zed Ses­elja, said a small contingent of Australian police stationed in Tonga had delivered a “pretty concerning” initial evaluation.

They were “able to do an as­sessment of some of the West­ern beaches area and there was some pretty significant damage to things like roads and some houses,” Seselja said.

“One of the good pieces of news is that I understand the airport has not suffered any significant damage,” he added. 

“That will be very, very important as the ash cloud clears and we are able to have flights coming into Tonga for humanitarian purposes.” Ma­jor aid agencies, who would usually rush in to provide emergency humanitarian relief, said they were stuck in a holding pattern, unable to contact local staff. “From what little updates we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense -- especial­ly for outlying islands,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s Pa­cific Head of Delegation.

Even when relief efforts get under way, they may be com­plicated by Covid-19 entry restrictions. Tonga only re­cently reported its first-ever coronavirus case.