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Vanuatu declares state of emergency in wake of cyclone

AFP

Cyclone-devastated Vanuatu declared a state of emergency Sunday as relief agencies scrambled to get help to the Pacific nation amid reports that entire villages were "blown away" when a monster storm swept through two days ago.

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The official death toll in the capital Port Vila stood at six on Sunday, although aid workers said this was likely just a fraction of the fatalities nationwide.

Communications were still down across most of the archipelago's 80 islands, although Air Vanuatu said the airport in Port Vila had reopened with limited facilities and commercial flights were scheduled to resume on Monday.

The government said it was still trying to assess the scale of the disaster unleashed when Super Cyclone Pam, a maximum category five system, vented its fury on Friday night, with winds reaching 320 kilometres (200 miles) an hour.

The UN had unconfirmed reports that the cyclone had killed 44 people in one province alone and Oxfam said the destruction in Port Vila was massive, with 90 percent of homes damaged.

"This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific, the scale of humanitarian need will be enormous... entire communities have been blown away," said Oxfam's Vanuatu director Colin Collet van Rooyen.

"People have completely amazed me," he added. "I've seen people walk away from totally destroyed houses and help others."

Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale described the storm as "a monster that has devastated our country", his voice breaking as he described Port Vila's devastation.

"Most of the buildings have been destroyed, many houses have been destroyed, school, health facilities have been destroyed," he told the BBC from Japan, where he was attending a disaster management conference when the cyclone hit.

Aid workers described destroyed homes, uprooted trees and blocked roads following what UNICEF spokeswoman Alice Clements said was "15-30 minutes of absolute terror" as the cyclone barrelled into the island.

"People have no water, they have no power, this is a really desperate situation right now. People need help," she told AFP.

Clements said most of the dwellings on Port Vila's outskirts, largely tin shacks, stood no chance.

Oxfam's executive director Helen Szoke said it was a "worse than worst case scenario", while World Vision spokeswoman Chloe Morrison said the situation appeared grim for the outlying islands in the nation of 275,000.

"We're seeing whole villages and houses blown away," she said.

The Fiji-based head of delegation for the Red Cross in the Pacific told AFP she spoke with a man who flew a light aircraft Sunday into the southern island of Tanna, home to 34,000 people.

"He said all the corrugated iron structures he saw in the western part of Tanna were destroyed and all concrete buildings were without roofs," Aurelia Balpe said.

"All foliage was destroyed, there was no water and there were unconfirmed reports of two dead.

"Shelter and food are the major issues," she added. "We are still struggling to understand the number of casualties."

Disease fears

Save the Children's head of humanitarian response Nichola Krey raised fears of food shortages in the subsistence economy and said conditions in evacuation centres were challenging.

"Many of the evacuation centres have lots of women and young children sleeping cheek-by-jowl, so health and protection will by key in the coming weeks," she said.

Clements said the hospital had also been flooded and most of its medical supplies were compromised.

Despite the problems, relief began to trickle in on Sunday, a day after Vanuatu's president Lonsdale made an emotional call for international aid at the Japan conference.

An Australian air force plane landed with supplies of food, shelter and medicine while a New Zealand plane flew supplies to neighbouring Tuvalu, where Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said 45 percent of the 11,000 population had been displaced.

"We are worried about the aftermath in terms of hygiene and supplies of essential materials like food, medicine and water," Sopoaga told Radio New Zealand after declaring a state of emergency.

Other Pacific nations were also struggling to cope. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati were both battered by the storm, although not to the extent of their neighbour.

NGOs have launched public appeals while governments around the globe pledged relief funding including $3.8 million from Australia, $2.9 million from Britain, $1.8 million from New Zealand and $1.05 million from the European Union.

France was also sending flights from its Pacific territory of New Caledonia and was considering ordering the frigate Vendemiaire to sail from Noumea so it can help assess the scale of the damage.

(AFP)

 

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