At least eight people are confirmed dead after Category 5 storm Pam smashes the small Pacific island nation.
The first international aid workers have reached cyclone-devastated Vanuatu as the Pacific nation declared a state of emergency amid reports of massive destruction in the areas reached by aid teams.
With winds of more than 300kph, Cyclone Pam razed homes, smashed boats and washed away roads and bridges as it struck late on Friday and into Saturday.
International relief supplies began arriving in the country on Sunday as the official death toll in the capital Port Vila stood at six. The count of total confirmed deaths was at eight with 30 people injured, according to authorities.
Aid workers, who describe the situation as catastrophic, say the initial death toll was likely to be just a fraction of the fatalities nationwide.
Communications were still down across most of the archipelago’s 80 islands, although the airport in Port Vila reopened with limited facilities to allow much-needed aid in. Commercial flights were scheduled to resume on Monday.
First teams arrive
Two Australian air force planes landed in the country with food, shelter and medicine, while a New Zealand military aircraft also arrived loaded with eight tonnes of tarpaulins, water containers, chainsaw packs and generators, the AFP news agency has said.
Pictures from Port Vila showed streets littered with debris, cars crushed by trees, buildings blown to pieces and yachts washed inland.
Virtually every building that is not concrete has been flattened.
President Baldwin Lonsdale, who happened to be at a disaster risk conference in Japan when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, likened the storm to a monster and appealed to the international community for assistance.
“Most of the houses in Vila … have been damaged and destroyed. People are finding shelter where they can live for the night,” he said.
An official with the Australian Red Cross told the Reuters news agency that aid workers who reached the southern island of Tanna 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 200km south of Port Vila.
The UN had unconfirmed reports that the cyclone had killed 44 people in one province alone and Oxfam, the UK-based international organisation working mainly on poverty issues, said 90 percent of homes in Poer Villa damaged.
“This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific, the scale of humanitarian need will be enormous… entire communities have been blown away,” said Oxfam’s Vanuatu director Colin Collet van Rooyen.
Vanuatu Red Cross President Hannington Alatoa said: “Effectively the whole country is flattened.”
‘Sounded like a freight train’
Witnesses in Port Vila described sea surges of up to eight metres and widespread flooding as the category 5 cyclone hit. Residents said the storm sounded like a freight train.
The international organisation added that the main hospital was damaged but the airport runway appeared undamaged.
While the focus was on Vanuatu, Tuvalu – another Pacific nation located some 1,550km to the northeast – saw thousands forced from their homes.
Vanuatu has a population of around 260,000 and infrastructure there is poor, especially in the outlying islands.