Relief workers who have struggled for days to access remote areas of Vanuatu that were ravaged by a fierce cyclone finally reached some of the islands today.
Radio and telephone communications with the South Pacific nation’s hard-hit outer islands were just beginning to be restored, but remained patchy three days after what the country’s president called a “monster” storm.
Australian military planes that conducted aerial assessments of the outer islands found significant damage, particularly on Tanna Island, where it appears that more than 80% of homes and other buildings were partially or completely destroyed, foreign minister Julie Bishop said.
“We understand that the reconnaissance imagery shows widespread devastation,” she said. “Not only buildings flattened – palm plantations, trees. It’s quite a devastating sight.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 11 people were confirmed dead, including five on Tanna Island, lowering their earlier report of 24 casualties after realising some of the victims had been counted more than once.
Officials with the National Disaster Management Office said they had no accurate figures on how many were dead, and aid agencies reported varying numbers.
The confusion over how many died in the storm reflects the difficulty officials face as they try to deal with a disaster spread across many remote islands amid a near-total communications blackout.
Relief workers have been fighting poor weather and communications issues for days, hampering much of their efforts to reach the outer islands.
A break in the weather today gave them a chance to try again, though access remained difficult. Most of the islands have no airports and those that do have only small landing strips that are tricky for large supply planes to navigate.
“There are over 80 islands that make up Vanuatu and on a good, sunny day outside of cyclone season it’s difficult to get to many of them,” said Colin Collett van Rooyen, Vanuatu director for Oxfam.
“Until today, the weather has been particularly cloudy, so even the surveillance flights would have had some difficulty picking up good imagery.”
Teams of aid workers and government officials carrying medical and sanitation supplies, water, food and shelter equipment have now managed to land on Tanna and neighbouring Erromango Island, he said. The two islands were directly in the path of the storm.
The relief teams were planning to meet local disaster officials and conduct damage assessments, said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, disaster coordinator for the UN’s humanitarian affairs office.
Some of the islands were just beginning to get their phone networks running again, and technical crews were en route to set up data and voice satellite communications. Officials hoped to restore communications to the islands within 48 hours, he said.
Photos of the islands taken by crews on board Australian, New Zealand and New Caledonian military surveillance flights were being analysed by officials in the capital, Port Vila. The information will help officials dispatch aid to the worst-hit areas, Mr Stampa said.
“Tanna has a problem with its water anyway. It’s dry outside the disaster season, so there’s a reasonable chance there’s a lack of water there.”
Vanuatu’s president, meanwhile, was rushing back to his country, which has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with coastal areas being washed away.
Looking weary and red-eyed, Baldwin Lonsdale said that Cyclone Pam destroyed or damaged 90% of the buildings in the capital alone.
He was speaking yesterday in Sendai, Japan, where he had been attending a UN disaster conference when the cyclone struck. He was expected to arrive in Vanuatu this evening.
“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.”
Mr Lonsdale said because of the communications problems, 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.
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 people. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
The UN said 3,300 people were sheltering in dozens of evacuation centres on the main island of Efate and in the provinces of Torba and Penama.
Officials were struggling to determine the scale of devastation from the cyclone, which tore through the nation early on Saturday, packing winds of 168mph.
Bridges were down outside Port Vila, making travel by vehicle impossible even around Efate.