CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – At least eight people were confirmed dead in Vanuatu after a massive cyclone tore through the tiny South Pacific archipelago, and the death toll is likely to rise much higher once communications are restored with outlying islands, aid workers said Sunday.
Packing winds of 270 kilometres (168 miles) per hour, Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu early Saturday, leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.
Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer in Port Vila, said officials from Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office confirmed to her agency that at least eight people died in and around the capital, Port Vila.
Officials have yet to assess the damage in many of the hard-hit outer islands because communications and power remain cut, she said. Morrison said she had heard reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas.
“People are really upset and it’s really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven’t received a really big cyclone like this one,” said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu co-ordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350. “Most people right now, they are really homeless.”
He came upon one of the storm’s victims on Saturday, while surveying the damage along the coastline with other relief workers. The group spotted a man lying on the ground, not breathing, and rushed him to the hospital. By the time they arrived, however, he was dead, Nihmei said.
Structural damage across Port Vila was extensive, Nihmei said, with the majority of homes severely damaged or destroyed.
Some residents began cleaning up what was left of their wrecked houses and checking on family members. Relief workers, meanwhile, were trying to get temporary shelters to victims as fast as possible, Nihmei said.
“We’re still not having communications with the other provinces,” Nihmei said. “We’re just running around trying to get information around Port Vila; with the other islands it’s really hard to get anything.”
A westward change of course put populated areas directly in the path of Pam. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were unconfirmed reports of an additional 44 deaths in Vanuatu’s northeastern islands after Pam moved off its expected track.
Residents awoke to much calmer weather Sunday after many hunkered down in emergency shelters for a second straight night, Morrison said. Many people who have ventured out from 23 emergency shelters around Port Vila have found their homes damaged or blown away altogether. Teetering trees and downed power lines have made parts of the capital hazardous.
Morrison said communications have been so problematic that her aid group hasn’t yet been able to account for many of its own 76 staff members on the islands.
For anybody who wasn’t in a secure shelter during the cyclone “it would have been a very, very tough time for them,” she said.
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
UNICEF estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the impact and scope of the disaster caused by the cyclone wasn’t yet clear, but he feared the damage and destruction could be widespread.
“We hope the loss of life will be minimal,” Ban said Saturday at the World Conference on Disaster Risk and Reduction in Japan. The U.N. said it was preparing to deploy emergency rapid response units.
The president of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, who was attending the conference, told participants, “I do not really know what impact the cyclone has had on Vanuatu.”
“I am speaking to you today with a heart that is so heavy,” he said. “I stand to appeal on behalf of the government and the people to give a helping hand in this disaster.”
Morrison said the first priority was to ensure people had adequate food, drinking water and shelter. Beyond that, she said, there would need to be a long and concerted rebuilding effort in the months ahead.
New Zealand pledged 1 million New Zealand dollars ($734,000) to help with relief efforts. On Sunday, Australia pledged 5 million Australian dollars ($3.8 million) in aid, and sent in a relief team with supplies including water and temporary shelters.
The small island nation, located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with the island’s coastal areas being washed away, forcing resettlement to higher ground and smaller yields on traditional crops.
Scientists say it’s impossible to attribute single weather events like Cyclone Pam to climate change.
The cyclone has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for Cyclone Pam, which is forecast to pass north of the country on Sunday and Monday.