Relief workers were still battling to reach many of the islands pummelled by Cyclone Pam’s gusts of more than 300kph.
With communications cut off and reconnaissance flights revealing destroyed houses, shredded forests, and damaged buildings, international aid agencies had been particularly worried about Tanna, which bore the full force of the storm.
A witness on the island of 29,000 people, about 200km south of the capital, said that while damage was extensive, it appeared most of the population had survived by sheltering in schools, churches and other sturdy buildings.
There were unconfirmed reports of four deaths around the main town of Tanna.
Daniel Dieckhaus, an adviser for USAid, said hard-hit communities were showing remarkable resilience. “You can see them out there now, rebuilding with whatever they have,” he said.
The UN said the official death toll from the cyclone was 11, revising its earlier figure of 24, but many officials anticipate that number would rise once they were able to more thoroughly inspect the outer islands of the scattered archipelago.
“The aerial reconnaissance flights confirmed significant damage in the southern islands, particularly Tanna island, where it appears that more than 80% of houses and buildings have been partially or completely destroyed,” Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Canberra.
In Vanuatu capital Port Vila, the clean-up was progressing after trees were uprooted and homes flattened, but there were worries about food scarcity and health after the main local food market was destroyed and the city’s hospital was severely damaged.
Bishop said Australia was sending a 20-strong emergency medical assistance team of doctors, nurses, paramedics, and a pharmacist. They plan to set up a temporary ward in the car park of the damaged Port Vila hospital capable of treating up to 40 patients. Thousands are still staying in shelters overnight, with a 6pm-6am curfew in place to prevent looting.