Aid workers struggle with scale of Vanuatu

Vanuatu’s shocked president has described the cyclone that hammered the tiny South Pacific archipelago as a “monster” and says climate change is partly to blame for the devastation.


Aid agencies say conditions in cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu are among the most challenging they have ever faced with fears of disease rife.

The official death toll in Port Vila, where relief workers said up to 90 per cent of homes have been damaged, stands at six with more than 30 injured, although aid workers believe this is likely a fraction of the fatalities caused by the storm.

Relief flights, including from Australia and New Zealand, continued arriving in the battered capital Port Vila after Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam tore through on Friday night packing wind gusts of up to 320 kilometres an hour.

But workers on the ground say there is no way to distribute desperately needed supplies across the archipelago’s 80 islands, warning it would take days to reach remote villages flattened by the storm.

Oxfam country director in Port Vila Colin Collett van Rooyen said a lack of enough clean water, temporary toilets, water purification tablets and hygiene kits needed to be addressed rapidly.

“Friday night was the first emergency with the arrival of Cyclone Pam, disease will be the second emergency without clean water, sanitation and hygiene provision,” he said.

“There are more than 100,000 people likely homeless, every school destroyed, full evacuation centres, damage to health facilities and the morgue.”

Charlotte Gillan, an Australian paramedic who lives in the village of Tango on the outskirts of Port Vila, said the front part of her house had collapsed.

“I fought tears seeing that devastation,” she said, adding that disease was now her main concern.

Save the Children’s Vanuatu director Tom Skirrow said the logistical challenges were even worse than for Super Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013, leaving more than 7,350 people dead or missing and ravaging an area as big as Portugal.

“I was present for the Haiyan response and I would 100 per cent tell you that this is a much more difficult logistical problem,” he said.

Aurelia Balpe, head of the Pacific office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, agreed the task facing aid agencies was likely unprecedented in the region.

Skirrow said flights over remote islands in the archipelago, which spans more than 12,000 square kilometres, had confirmed widespread destruction elsewhere in the impoverished nation of 270,000.

Balpe said initial reports from two volunteers in the northern Torres and Banks islands were not as devastating, but no contact had been established with other areas and it appeared the southern island of Tanna had suffered widespread damage.

President Baldwin Lonsdale said changing weather patterns were partly to blame for the destruction.

“Climate change is contributing to the disaster in Vanuatu,” the emotional leader said before leaving Japan, where he was attending a UN disaster meeting.

“This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. 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.”

Communications were still down across most of the islands, although the airport in Port Vila re-opened to commercial flights on Monday.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the cyclone, which was the maximum category five when it hit, had affected countries across the South Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Tuvalu.

Mr Lonsdale later said his island nation needed the world’s help to rebuild “everything”.

“The humanitarian need is immediate, we need it right now,” he said.

“In the long term we need the financial support, assistance, to start rebuilding our infrastructure – everything, we have to build.”