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Cyclone Pam devastates Vanuatu amid fears of large death toll

Relief workers are set for a large-scale relief operation after huge Cyclone Pam wrought havoc in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Officials say the storm may have been one of the worst ever in the region.

Dozens of people are feared dead after Cyclone Pam hit the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu on Saturday, destroying houses and downing trees with winds of up to 340 kilometers per hour (210 mph).

Satellite photos showed the Category 5 storm covering virtually the entire archipelago of 83 islands, which are home to 260,000 people, many of them living in thatched or corrugated-iron huts.

Flooding was reported throughout the capital, Port Vila, and witnesses say communications with the outside world have been virtually knocked out.

Reuters news agency cited Vanuatu authorities as saying eight people were confirmed dead.

Widespread destruction

Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications in Port Vila, said she had heard reports of entire villages being destroyed on remote northeastern islands.

"The damage is quite extensive in Port Vila but there are so many more vulnerable islands. I can't even imagine what it's like in these vulnerable communities."

Aid officials are saying that the storm may be the worst ever to hit the country and possibly one of the most catastrophic natural disasters ever seen in the Pacific region.

The storm first hit Papua New Guinea, where aid officials said one person died, and the Solomon Islands before moving on to Vanuatu, where an unexpected change of course to the west placed some of the archipelago's most populated areas at risk.

It will pass between Fiji and New Caledonia before touching New Zealand's North Island, where it is expected to bring heavy rains.

Vanuatu is a country at high risk from cyclones and other natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. It has also repeatedly warned that it is suffering devastating effects from rising sea levels as a consequence of climate change, with many forced to resettle to higher ground away from coastal areas.

Disaster risk conference

The cyclone came as policymakers gathered for a 10-yearly United Nations meeting on disaster risk reduction in the northeastern Japanese city of Sendai.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the conference he had met with Vanuatu's president, Baldwin Lonsdale, to express solidarity and condolences following the disaster, which highlights the rising risks of climate change.

"What we are discussing here today is very real for millions of people in the world," he said in a speech, saying investment in disaster risk reduction was "a smart investment for business and a wise investment in saving lives."

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has said in a report that losses from disasters cost an average of $250 billion to $300 billion (236 billion euros to 286 billion euros) annually across the world.

The conference is being held days after Japan marked the fourth anniversary of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The quake on 11 March, 2011 triggered a tsunami that killed around 19,000 people in Japan, as well as causing a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima atomic plant.

tj/ng (AFP, AP, Reuters)