Cyclone Pam one of the worst-ever Pacific disasters

By AAP with AG Staff 17 March 2015
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Vanuatu is facing the worst natural disaster in the Pacific in recent memory, in the wake of Category 5 Cyclone Pam

VANUATU IS FACING a disaster of epic proportions with Australia warning the island nation could be in for a long and difficult recovery from Cyclone Pam.

The category five cyclone slammed into Vanuatu with brutal force on Friday, causing widespread damage.

The death toll is unknown due to the lack of communication, but that toll is expected to climb significantly with aid agencies warning many thousands of people are now homeless after Pam’s 320km/h winds blew away entire villages.

Aid, including food, shelter and medicine, from Australia and other countries is flowing into the devastated capital Port Vila, where Oxfam says 90 per cent of homes have been damaged.

Witnesses have reported a storm surge of up to 8m flooded the capital and tore away at buildings. There are grave fears for entire villages on low-lying islands that bore the full brunt of Pam’s fury and the storm surge it generated.

“Those islands are at sea level, they had very poor accommodation and no evacuation centres,” Oxfam Australia chief executive Helen Szoke said.

“Our team on the ground are saying they fear the death toll will rise significantly. There’s still no help on the ground there but the aerial surveillance of those islands is showing complete destruction. Buildings wrecked, trees stripped and broken, debris and mess – a picture of incredible destruction.”

Cyclone Pam leaves huge numbers of people homeless

“Huge numbers” of people were homeless in Vanuatu, said Helen, who was trying to get a handle on reports of very severe flooding in the Solomon Islands.

Oxfam’s Vanuatu director Colin Collett van Rooyen said Cyclone Pam will go down in history as one of the Pacific’s worst ever disasters.

He said that while help is slowly arriving there, the same can’t be said for Vanuatu’s islands. He fears it will be at least a week until authorities can reach all of the nation’s islands, where access is challenging in fine conditions.

Initial reports of aerial surveillance at Erromango and Tanna – two of the main islands south of Efate, where Port Vila is located – are cause for deep concern.

Tanna, whose active volcano Mount Yasur has long been a tourist drawcard, appears to have suffered terribly.

“There are reports that entire communities seem to have faced massive destruction,” Colin said. “Tanna has 29,000 people on an island that’s about 40km by 20km so it’s quite densely populated.”

Beyond that, Oxfam and Vanuatu’s Humanitarian Team are not aware of any other contact with or information from the other 60 or so islands that are inhabited in Vanuatu.

“Some of these islands are really small and have very small communities of under 100 people. They are incredibly remote and even in perfect conditions, they might only have access to the outside world once or twice a month when a boat comes,” Colin said.

“Under the conditions we have it’s almost impossible. Most of them would not have operational landing strips and are accessible by boat. At an incredibly intense pace I’d say it would take at least a week to get to them all.”

“Vanuatu has taken a really big hit” from Cyclone Pam

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said there had been no reports of injuries or fatalities among the 3000 Australian thought to be in Vanuatu.

Australia has sent military planes to the shattered nation with humanitarian supplies, medical teams and engineers, and given $5 million to aid groups including the Red Cross. It’s also responding to requests for help from the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

Australian Orion aircraft have photographed almost all of cyclone-flattened Vanuatu, and the defence force doesn’t like what it’s seen.

Lieutenant-Colonel Matt Clarke, who is leading Australian troops on the ground in Port Vila, says Orion surveillance aircraft have been flying in an out of Honiara in the Solomon Islands for two days.

“They’re seeing a lot of devastation,” Lieutenant-Colonel Clarke said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s inevitable that there have been some fatalities.”

He said almost the entire country has been photographed with detailed, high-resolution cameras, and the focus was now on smaller archipelagos like the Shepherd Islands.

“Vanuatu has really taken a big hit,” he said. “When tropical Cyclone Pam hit she hit hard. This is up there with any disaster I’ve seen.”