21 April 2019
A man runs away from high waves along the coast of Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu, on Saturday. Photo: AFP/CARE
A man runs away from high waves along the coast of Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu, on Saturday. Photo: AFP/CARE

Aid teams find vast devastation after cyclone hits Vanuatu

Aid workers who have reached Vanuatu reported widespread devastation after a “monster” cyclone tore through the Pacific island nation. Authorities have declared a state of emergency.

With winds of more than 300 kph (185 mph), Cyclone Pam razed homes, smashed boats and washed away roads and bridges as it struck late on Friday and into Saturday, Reuters reported. Aid workers described the situation as catastrophic.

At least eight deaths have been confirmed with 30 people injured. The number of casualties is expected to rise as rescuers reach the archipelago’s outlying islands.

Aid workers were particularly worried about the southern island of Tanna. An official with the Australian Red Cross told the news agency an aircraft had managed to land there and aid workers confirmed there was “widespread destruction”.

“Virtually every building that is not concrete has been flattened,” said the official, adding two deaths had been confirmed on the island which has a population of about 29,000 and is about 200 km south of the capital, Port Vila.

Witnesses in Port Vila described sea surges of up to 8 meters (26 feet) and widespread flooding as the category 5 cyclone hit. Residents said the storm sounded like a freight train. Port Vila was strewn with debris and looked as if a bomb had gone off.

President Baldwin Lonsdale, who happened to be at a disaster risk conference in Japan, likened the storm to a monster.

“Most of the houses in Vila … have been damaged and destroyed. People are finding shelter where they can live for the night,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He said the impact would be “the very, very, very worst” in isolated outer islands but held out hope the number of casualties would be “minor”.

Vanuatu’s climate change minister, James Bule, said people were used to storms, though not usually such strong ones, and he also hoped loss of life might be limited.

“We have people aware of what to do,” Bule said.

Formerly known as the New Hebrides, Vanuatu is a sprawling cluster of 83 islands and 260,000 people, 2,000 km northeast of the Australian city of Brisbane.

It is among the world’s poorest countries and highly prone to disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and storms.

Aid officials said the storm was comparable in strength to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people, and looked set to be one of the worst natural disasters the Pacific region has experienced.

Kris Paraskevas, a consultant in Port Vila, said: “The villages are no good. Many houses were just poles and tin or thatch. There’s nothing left, people are just sitting in rubble.”

Aid flights, including a New Zealand military Hercules aircraft carrying eight tons of supplies and an initial team, landed 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 U.N. team was also preparing to go in with members drawn from as far away as Europe. France sent a team from nearby New Caledonia and said it was considering sending more aircraft and a frigate in coordination with Australia and New Zealand.

Pam weakened on Sunday as it moved to the southeast, and New Zealand’s northern regions were starting to feel its effects. Authorities there were warning the public to prepare for damaging winds, heavy rain and big seas.

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A man moves debris near his home in Port Vila after a "monster" cyclone left widespread devastation in Vanuatu. Photo: Reuters

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