WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Vanuatu’s president was rushing back to his country on Monday in the wake of what he dubbed a “monster” cyclone whose damage was still unknown beyond the devastation in the South Pacific archipelago’s capital city.
Looking weary and red-eyed, Baldwin Lonsdale told The Associated Press that the latest information he had was that six people were confirmed dead and 30 injured from Cyclone Pam, which he said destroyed or damaged 90 per cent of the buildings in the capital alone, when it hit over the weekend. Lonsdale was interviewed in Sendai, in northeastern Japan, where he had been attending a U.N. disaster conference when the cyclone struck.
“This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster, a monster,” he said. “It’s a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu. After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out.”
Lonsdale said because of a breakdown in communications infrastructure, even he could not reach his family. “We do not know if our families are safe or not. As the leader of the nation, my whole heart is for the people, the nation,” he said.
Officials in Vanuatu had still not made contact with outlying islands by Monday night and were struggling to determine the scale of devastation from the cyclone, which tore through the nation early Saturday, packing winds of 270 kilometres (168 miles) per hour. Bridges were down outside the capital, Port Vila, making travel by vehicle impossible even around the main island of Efate.
Paolo Malatu, co-ordinator for Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, said officials had dispatched every plane and helicopter they could to fly over the hard-hit outer islands. The office was expecting to get full reports from the flyover crews early Tuesday.
“The damage to homes and infrastructure is severe,” Malatu said. “The priority at the moment is to get people water, food and shelter.”
The damaged airport in Port Vila has reopened, allowing some aid and relief flights to reach the country. Lonsdale said a wide range of items were needed, from tarpaulins and water containers to medical supplies and construction tools. Those on the ground pleaded for help to arrive quickly.
The city’s hospital was overwhelmed with patients, and some beds were moved outside due to fears the building is no longer safe.
“The wards have all been evacuated because of structural damage,” surgeon Richard Leona told Australia’s Channel 7. “We are badly needing this help. We need to get an urgent drug supply and food and also set up a mobile hospital to deal with the influx of patients coming in.”
In Port Vila, smashed boats littered the harbour, and sodden piles of household belongings tangled among twisted tree branches lay where some homes once stood.
Many of the city’s residents spent Monday clearing away downed trees and cleaning up what was left of their houses. Those left homeless were generally staying with loved ones whose houses had withstood the storm, or sleeping in temporary shelters provided by aid agencies, said UNICEF spokeswoman Alice Clements.
Access to food and water is an urgent concern, said Clements, who is in Port Vila. Much of the city’s water supply has been tainted, so residents are boiling water to drink.
Clements said she spoke to a woman who is nine months pregnant and lost her home in the storm. The woman’s situation, along with many others, is growing desperate, Clements said.
“She has no water, no food, no power,” she said. “This is an incredibly dangerous time.”
Some commercial flights have resumed, although services are limited. Georgina Roberts, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Vanuatu, said two defence force planes were sent to retrieve about 100 stranded New Zealand tourists.
In Sydney, shaken Australian tourists returning from Vanuatu greeted loved ones with hugs and terrifying tales of the storm’s wrath.
“I’ve never seen or heard anything like that noise,” Ralph Scott said after arriving at Sydney’s airport. “It was frightening, it was supersonic, it was terrible.”
Scott said the aftermath of the storm was “utter devastation.”
“Houses, roads washed away,” he said. “People walking around like zombies.”
New Zealand radio journalist Frances Cook and her husband travelled to Vanuatu for their honeymoon two days before the cyclone struck. She said they knew a storm was coming but figured from the forecasts it wouldn’t be too bad.
“It’s been exciting,” she joked.
Instead of zip-lining through the jungle and looking at active volcanoes as planned, Cook has been reporting back home on the devastation. She said a lot of stranded tourists were desperate to leave and some were afraid for their security.
“It’s a glorious place and the people are so lovely,” she said. “It’s quite upsetting to see this happen.”
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 people spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
Hannington Alatoa, head of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, said flyovers by New Zealand and Australian relief teams showed much of the country had been “flattened.” At least half of the population has been affected, Alatoa said in Sendai.
“No trees, no foliage, no iron structures standing on the western part of Tanna (island),” Alatoa said. “People are in great need of water.”
UNICEF estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.
The small archipelago, about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with coastal areas being washed away, forcing resettlement to higher ground and smaller yields on traditional crops.
Scientists say it’s impossible to attribute single weather events like Cyclone Pam to climate change.
“Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu,” President Lonsdale said. “We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year.”
The cyclone also caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Some homes were evacuated in New Zealand on Monday to escape flooding as the weakening storm moved past North Island.