Cyclone Pam has forced Vanuatu to 'start over,' president says

The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu has lost years of development progress and must "start over" in the wake of Cyclone Pam, the country's president said Monday.

An estimated 90% of buildings on main island either destroyed or damaged

      1 of 0

      The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu has lost years of development progress and must "start over" after Cyclone Pam destroyed or damaged 90 per cent of the buildings on the main island of Port Vila, the country's president said Monday.

      Baldwin Lonsdale, visibly weary and red-eyed from lack of sleep, said in an interview that he and other top government officials were preparing to return home later Monday from Sendai, in northeastern Japan, where they were attending a disaster conference.

      Lonsdale said that the limited information he was able to get from home showed six people confirmed dead on Port Vila after the category 5 typhoon smashed across the Vanuatu archipelago. He said information from other islands was not available because most communication links were still not working.

      "This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu," Lonsdale said. "I term it as a monster, a monster. It's a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu. After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out."

      The president said because of the break in communications, even he could not reach his family. "We do not know if our families are safe or not. As the leader of the nation, my whole heart is for the people, the nation."

      Officials in Vanuatu had still not made contact with outlying islands and were struggling to determine the scale of devastation from the cyclone, which tore through early Saturday, packing winds of 270 km/h and leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.

      Two people have been confirmed dead in the capital, Port Vila, with another 20 injured there, said Paolo Malatu, co-ordinator for the National Disaster Management Office.

      Power remains out across the tiny Pacific archipelago and people on many of the outer islands have no access to running water or outside communications. (UNICEF Pacific/Associated Press)

      Earlier, Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer, said Vanuatu's disaster response office told her agency that at least eight people died. She had also heard reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas.

      The confusion over the death toll is due largely to a near-total communications blackout across the country. With power lines and phone circuits down, officials in the capital had no way of knowing what the scope of the damage was on the outer islands, where the storm scored a direct hit.

      "We haven't been able to communicate outside Port Vila," Malatu said. "At this point, the damage is severe and we haven't had figures of how many houses destroyed. ... It's really bad, it's really bad."

      "The damage to homes and infrastructure is severe," Malatu said. "The priority at the moment is to get people water, food and shelter."

      He said there was major damage to many government buildings, and bridges were down outside the capital, making travel by vehicle impossible even around the main island of Efate.

      Lonsdale appealed for more help.

      "Tarpaulins, water containers, medical needs, gathering tools, construction tools, all these are very important right now," the president said.

      The first shipments of aid landed in Vanuatu on Sunday as authorities declared a state of emergency and global relief agencies geared up to help.

      Aid arrives from New Zealand

      Aid flights, including a New Zealand military Hercules aircraft carrying eight tonnes of supplies and an initial team, began to land on Sunday as Port Vila's airport partially reopened.

      Australia sent two military aircraft including one with medical experts, search and rescue teams and emergency supplies while a UN team was also due in Port Vila on Sunday with members drawn from as far away as Europe.

      Oxfam's country manager Colin Collett van Rooyen said Vanuatu's outlying islands were particularly vulnerable. "We are talking about islands that are remote and really small, with none of what we would call modern infrastructure," he said.

      "We anticipate that that will go higher," he added, referring to the death toll.

      Sune Gudnitz, regional head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said he was particularly worried about the densely populated volcanic island of Tanna in the south. Nothing had been heard from the island, which has a population of about 29,000 people, he said.

      Medical system poorly equipped

      Australia has promised $5 million A in aid, while Britain, which jointly ruled Vanuatu with France until independence in 1980, has offered up to $2.95 million US in assistance. The World Bank said it was exploring a swift insurance payout to the government.

      "We will also be deploying humanitarian supplies to provide support for up to 5,000 people in the form of water, sanitation and shelter," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Perth.

      Officials are planning to head to the outer islands Monday in helicopters, small planes and military aircraft to get a better sense of the destruction, Malatu said.

      Debris is scattered over a building in Port Vila, Vanuatu in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam. (Iss Nihemi/Associated Press)

      "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."

      Vanuatu (in red) is a sprawling country of 83 islands and 260,000 people. (Google Maps)

      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 victims to temporary shelters as fast as possible, Nihmei said.

      At least half the population affected

      Hannington Alatoa, head of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, said flyovers by New Zealand and Australian relief teams showed much of the country had been "flattened." At least half of the population, or about 130,000 people, has been affected, Alatoa said in Sendai, Japan, where he and other Vanuatu officials were attending a UN conference on disaster risk reduction. He had no accurate information on the numbers left homeless.

      "No trees, no foliage, no iron structures standing on the western part of Tanna," Altoa said, referring to one of Vanuatu's southern islands. "Trees blocked the roads. ... People are in great need of water."

      Highlighting the difficulty of getting information from some areas, Alatoa said he has been unable to contact his family from Sendai.

      "I tried yesterday to call them from my hotel room, but I didn't get through," he said. "It's difficult. I'm praying that they are able to cope with the situation they have on the ground right now."

      Residents awoke to much calmer weather Sunday after many hunkered down in emergency shelters for a second straight night.

      Many people who have ventured out from 23 emergency shelters around Port Vila have found their homes damaged or blown away altogether, Morrison of World Vision said. Teetering trees and downed power lines have made parts of the capital hazardous.

      Tracking aid workers difficult

      She 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 people 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.

      The cyclone has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomons. Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for Cyclone Pam, which was forecast to pass north of the country on Sunday and Monday.


      To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

      By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.