Rescue workers began a massive relief operation in Vanuatu on Sunday following a devastating cyclone that killed at least eight people, sent thousands into emergency shelters and disrupted communications in the Pacific island nation.
A nine-member U.N. team was due to arrive Sunday to carry out an initial assessment of the damage from the Category 5 cyclone named Pam, which at its peak covered the entire country on satellite maps.
The storm destroyed entire villages, reducing buildings to timbers, tearing off rooftops, downing power lines and toppling trees with winds of more than 300 kilometers per hour (185 miles per hour).
Several other neighboring countries also were affected.
Officials said the airport in Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, remained closed, though they hoped it might partly reopen later Sunday to allow in the first relief planes.
A change of course to the west sent Pam directly at populated areas. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were unconfirmed reports of 44 more deaths in Vanuatu's northeastern islands after Pam drifted from the track that had been forecast.
People fleeing the storm's wrath flooded into more than 20 evacuation centers that were filled with thousands of evacuees, government officials said. They awoke to much calmer weather Sunday, but many who ventured out around Port Vila have found their homes damaged or blown away altogether.
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 were an urgent priority.
Fears remained high that outlying islands, where there are few support services, may have been especially hard hit by flash flooding and cyclone-related damage. One group, World Vision, warned it could take days or weeks to reach the most remote islands. Officials said they were still unable to contact any region outside the capital.
"Our communication link is still down,'' said Paolo Malatu, an official at the country's National Disaster Management Office. "We have not got any information from outside Port Vila.''
The storm struck as Vanuatu's president, Baldwin Lonsdale, was at a United Nations conference on disaster reduction in Japan. He appealed for international assistance, saying he was speaking with "a heavy heart."
A U.N. statement on a meeting between Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Lonsdale on the sidelines of the conference quoted the U.N. chief as saying Vanuatu "has already been suffering from the adverse effects of climate change." He said "storms such as Pam only exacerbate the challenges that the country faces."
With Lonsdale away and unable to fly into Vanuatu, the government was being led temporarily by Charlot Salwai, acting minister for climate change, government officials said.
Officials on Sunday confirmed eight fatalities, a toll that was expected to increase amid unconfirmed reports of dozens of dead in the nation's remote northeast region. At least 20 others were injured.
State of emergency
"We anticipate that [the death toll] will go higher, particularly as information comes from the remote islands. We are talking about islands that are remote and really small, with none of what we would call modern infrastructure,'' said Colin Collett van Rooyen, Oxfam's country manager in Vanuatu.
He added that the government had declared a state of emergency for Shefa province, where Port Vila is located, and that he anticipated it would eventually be extended to the entire nation.
Vanuatu, located east of Australia, consists of more than 80 islands in a Y-shaped archipelago, according to the U.S. State Department. The CIA World Factbook puts the nation's population at nearly 267,000.
Aid agencies in nearby Australia and New Zealand were preparing to send help.
Some information for this report came from Reuters and AP.