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Red Cross: People in Vanuatu 'desperate' for food, water and shelter

Aid workers have been confronted with scenes of destruction as they reach remote areas of storm-ravaged Vanuatu. DW speaks to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on what people need most.

As relief workers finally gain access to some of the most remote areas of Vanuatu, they are beginning to asses the full scale of the destruction left by Cyclone Pam, a destructive category 5 storm, which slammed into the Pacific island nation on March 13.

The storm not only damaged 90 percent of homes in the capital Port Vila, but also left at least 3,300 people displaced and impacted services such as electricity and communications, according to the latest data from the National Disaster Management Office. The death toll was recently revised by the UN to 11, down from an earlier figure of 24, but many officials fear the number will rise once rescuers inspect the outer islands of the scattered archipelago.

In a DW interview, Aurélia Balpe, regional head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and (IFRC), and Ismael Lara, the IFRC's Regional Communications Officer, say an estimated 130,000 people have been affected by the cyclone in Vanuatu and talk about the urgent need for water, food and safe shelter.

DW: How would you describe the level of devastation in the archipelago after Cyclone Pam?

Aurélia Balpe and Ismael Lara: In the past few days, thousands of people in nine Pacific Nations have been impacted by four serious tropical storms. Vanuatu suffered the worst when Cyclone Pam - a category 5 tropical storm - hit the country with wind exceeding 250 kilometers per hour. It is one of the worst cyclones to affect the pacific in recent history.

Authorities in Vanuatu are trying to establish the full extent of the damage but it is reported to be significant; water sources have been damaged and homes - both informal and semi-permanent - have been damaged or destroyed.

The main hospital has sustained damage including the medical, surgical and children's wards. Tropical Cyclone Pam left massive humanitarian needs across Vanuatu and we are doing our best to respond as quickly as we can.

What are the main challenges aid workers are facing at the moment?

According to Red Cross teams already on the ground, logistical challenges could delay efforts to meet the needs of affected populations and also assess the overall needs for the country. Some areas are only accessible by boat, so it is taking time – yet we know we need to move fast.

The advantage is that the Vanuatu Red Cross knows the surroundings well. We had been active for days before Cyclone Pam hit, working with authorities to assist in evacuations, and passing important messaging on the radio to provinces outside the capital.

Since Tropical Cyclone Pam made landfall, Red Cross volunteers have been visiting evacuation centers, and going door-to-door to check on families to distribute food, water and providing any immediate health assistance required.

Regionally, we are providing international support to not only Vanuatu, but also to Kiribati and Tuvalu. Food, water, first aid and shelter remain the most urgent needs across all affected islands. We have emergency response teams in place in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji.

The challenge again is to access all these areas that need our help, but we are doing our best and bringing in teams from outside the nation islands to support.

According to the latest estimates, how many people have been affected by the cyclone?

An estimated 130,000 have been affected in Vanuatu. This is out of a total population of 277,061 people. Power and phone lines are down, mobile communications have been intermittent, and contact with outer islands has not been possible so far so the precise figure is hard to say at the moment.

While Vanuatu has been hit the hardest, thousands more in nine countries across the Pacific have been affected or are threatened by the weather systems including Tropical Storm Bavi, and Tropical Cyclone Nathan, which is expected to remain in the region until the morning of 19 March.

What do the victims need most at the moment?

Shelter, water, food and first aid remain a priority in Vanuatu, where the Red Cross is working closely with local authorities and other actors to support the government-led response. Additional support from the Australian, Fiji, French, New Zealand and Tonga Red Cross Red Cross is being provided either through aid, or the deployment of expert teams in communication, health, and shelter.

What can the international community do to help?

We are extremely concerned for the safety and well-being of many communities affected by the cyclone, particularly in the more remote regions of the country that are only accessible by boat .This is a huge disaster that needs a global response.

IFRC has launched an appeal for 3.9 million Swiss francs (3.8 million USD) to support 60,000 people affected by Cyclone Pam.

This will complement the original 133,000 Swiss francs from the IFRC's Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to the Vanuatu Red Cross Society. The New Zealand Red Cross is also sending aid workers, funds and 1,300 tarpaulins and 200 First Aid kits to Vanuatu.

Yet we will need all the help we can get in the coming weeks and months. And we need it urgently. People are desperate for water, food and safe shelter, and time is of the essence.

Aurélia Balpe is the Head of delegation for the IFRC in the Pacific. Ismael Lara is the IFRC's Regional Communications and Advocacy Officer.

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