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Aid Teams Arrive in Vanuatu, Find Devastation


Relief supplies began flowing into Vanuatu Sunday after a devastating tropical cyclone slammed into the South Pacific Island nation late Friday and Saturday.

Cyclone Pam, carrying winds up to 300 kph, destroyed entire villages, reducing buildings to timbers and tearing off rooftops, downing power lines and toppling trees.

Aid workers described the situation as catastrophic.

Authorities have confirmed at least eight deaths, and more than 20 injuries, but the toll is expected to rise as rescuers reach the most remote islands in the archipelago.

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

State of emergency

Aid workers say virtually every building not made out of concrete has been flattened. Authorities have declared a state of emergency.

With communications and power lines down, officials have had a difficult time getting information as to the extent of the damage.

"Agencies have been advised to take a no regrets approach, even if information is limited, it is important to prepare for the worst," said Hannington Alatoa, head of the Vanuatu Red Cross.

Alatoa spoke from Japan where he is attending a U.N. conference on disaster risk reduction, along with Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale, and other country officials.

"The government immediately should encourage the ministries and the various sectors to get straight into the programmes of replanting and rehabilitation and restructuring, and those kinds of activities must take place immediately," he said.

Aid officials said the disaster could be one of the worst the Pacific region has ever experienced.

UNICEF said the cyclone affected at least half the population of Vanuatu, including about 54,000 children. Oxfam said water, sanitation and hygiene supplies are an urgent priority.

Category 5 cyclone

Witnesses in the capital of Port Vila described sea surges of up to eight 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.”

He said offers of aid had been very generous and said: “We are not begging, but we are asking for assistance.”

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.

Northeast of Australia

Formerly known as the New Hebrides, Vanuatu is a sprawling cluster of 83 islands and 260,000 people, 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) 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.

Search and rescue, medical teams

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.

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 he anticipated that the death toll would climb higher.

Australia promised A$5 million in aid, New Zealand NZ$2.5 million while Britain, which jointly ruled Vanuatu with France until independence in 1980, has offered up to two million pounds ($2.95 million) 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 said.

Aurelia Balpe, regional head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said Vanuatu's medical system was poorly equipped to handle such a disaster.

“The country mostly relies on first aid posts and the supplies in the clinics are probably just antibiotics and pain relief.”

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.

Some material for this report came from Reuters.