Vanuatu an 'absolute catastrophe' following Cyclone Pam

  • 15/03/2015

Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale says climate change is a key factor in the devastation wrought on the Pacific nation by Super Cyclone Pam.

The category five system has left six dead and 30 injured in the capital Port Vila alone.

"Climate change is contributing to the disaster in Vanuatu," he said in comments on Australian television ahead of his departure from Japan to Sydney.

"Confirmed dead in [Port] Vila is six, and more than 30 injuries in Port Vila alone."

Pacific island nations regard themselves as the frontline of climate change, given that as low-lying islands they are dangerously exposed to rising sea levels which they say threaten their very existence.

"This is a very devastating cyclone that has crossed Vanuatu," Mr Lonsdale said from Sendai, where he had been attending a UN conference.

"I term it as a monster. It's a monster that has hit the republic of Vanuatu," he said as he called for humanitarian assistance ahead of his departure for Sydney, from where he will travel to Vanuatu.

"It means that we have to start anew again." 

Aid workers in Vanuatu say Cyclone Pam has wreaked an "absolute catastrophe" on the island nation.

UNICEF's Alice Clements is in the capital of Port Vila, which she says has been transformed from a "beautiful tourist town" into one that appears to have been hit by a bomb.

"For those New Zealanders who have been to Vanuatu or to Port Vila, you know that this is a wonderful place," she said on Firstline this morning, speaking by phone.

"The trees are shredded, there's powerlines everywhere, there's corrugated iron roofing wrapped into strange shapes from the force of the wind. In the harbour of Port Vila, you can just see boat after boat after boat on the bottom of the harbour. There are other yachts that are crushed together, and that's simply in the centre of town where probably construction standards are the best."

Aerial surveys of outerlying islands began yesterday after the worst of the storm passed, showing flattened towns and villages. Ms Clements says there has been little communication with villages outside of the capital.

"We need to figure out how many people are affected, where is most-affected, and do everything it takes to get our aid to them, whether it's on a plane or by boat, whatever it takes," she says.

A shipment from Fiji is on its way now.

"That'll provide everything from essential medical supplies, immunisation – there's a measles epidemic here at the moment, so making sure that things like that don't spread when people are in shelters – water and sanitation kits, and things like education supplies for schoolkids, which allows children to get back to their education."

But the human cost is making it difficult to take advantage of the extra supplies. Ms Clements says the hospital in Port Vila is damaged, but it's of more concern that there is a lack of staff – they haven't shown up for work because their own homes and families have been affected.

"Yesterday I met a woman in a community that had been flooded by raging water from the rivers, and it had sucked out all of their possessions from their homes at about three in the morning, forcing them to run for their lives and shelter," says Ms Clements.

"It sucked out all of their possessions and disappeared them into the sea. In its place it just left inches of mud across the entire house and entire community."

Volunteers in Vanuatu yet to check in

Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) is still trying to get in contact with four Kiwi volunteers in Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam.

Nineteen of the 23 Kiwi volunteers working there are safe, but the agency is having difficulty reaching the others who are located on islands where communications are down.

VSA international programme manager Junior Ulu says the last communications they had with volunteers on the outer islands were that they were "bunkering down".

"We made sure prior to the cyclone hitting that they were in secure accommodation… we've made sure that they've had extra food, and we were in communication with them right up until the time that the cyclone hit," Mr Ulu said on Firstline this morning.

"We've been able to contact the volunteers that are in Port Vila, and also in Luganville and Santo, but because communications are down it's been harder to connect with the volunteers on the outer islands."

VSA is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and non-governmental organisations on the ground in Vanuatu to find out how they can help.

Most of the images coming out of Vanuatu to date have been of the devastated capital Port Vila. Mr Ulu says reports from Luganville and Santo so far suggest they may have escaped the absolute worst, but with communications still down, nothing is quite certain.

"There haven't been a lot of fatalities that have been reported so far in Luganville and Santo, but that's not been confirmed just yet. Things on the ground in Luganville are not as catastrophic as they have been in Port Vila… the communications that we've had with our volunteers in Port Vila is that things have been really tough for them."

Mr Ulu says is volunteers want to quit the region, that's absolutely fine.

"It is a traumatic experience for them, and also I managed the cyclone in Samoa, and certainly volunteers wanted to come back at that time, and we didn't hold them back and didn't stop them.

"But the nature of volunteers is that they want to stay, they want to help. I imagine that some of them would want to stay."

In fact, some former volunteers currently home in New Zealand have contacted VSA saying they want to head back.

More information is available on the VSA website. Alternatively, if you would like to contribute financially to the relief effort in Vanuatu, visit UNICEF's donation page or the Red Cross Pacific Disaster Fund.

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3 News/AFP

source: newshub archive