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Scenes of 'total destruction' in Vanuatu as death toll expected to rise

Homes flattened, villages blown away, thousands left homeless - aid workers are beginning to assess the scale of the devastation in the storm-ravaged Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Thousands are in need of support.

"This is the worst cyclone Vanuatu has ever seen. Certainly around the capital Port Vila, it is a scene of total destruction." These are the words of Tom Skirrow, country director of the Save the Children aid group, speaking to DW from the South Pacific island nation on the scale of the devastation left behind by Cyclone Pam.

"Trees have been uprooted, houses knocked down and power poles bent in half. People's homes and livelihoods have been ripped apart by the storm. I've never experienced a storm so ferocious."

State of emergency

The massive storm slammed into Vanuatu's capital, on Efate island, as a destructive Category 5 cyclone on the evening of Friday, killing at least eight people and damaging 90 percent of homes in Port Vila, according to the latest estimates. Tens of thousands have been displaced.

The death toll, however, is expected to rise as rescuers make their way to outlying islands of the archipelago, which declared a state of emergency on Sunday. Neighboring Tuvalu did the same as tidal surges caused by the storm washed away houses and crops.

Bildergalerie Vanuatu Zerstörung nach Zyklon Pam

Winds of up to 250 kilometers per hour (155 mph) have been recorded

Cyclone Pam veered off its expected course, striking populated areas with winds of up to 270 kilometers per hour (170 miles per hour) and gusts peaking at around 320 kilometers per hour. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the ferocious winds damaged infrastructure, impacted services such as electricity and communications, and left debris strewn across the capital.

"A disaster of this magnitude has not been experienced by Vanuatu in recent history - particularly in terms of the reach of the potential damage and the ferocity of the storm," said Sune Gudnitz, head of OCHA's Regional Office for the Pacific. Both Save the Children and the UN children's fund UNICEF estimate that more than 50,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.

In need of support

Speaking from a UN disaster risk conference in Japan on Saturday, President Baldwin Lonsdale described the storm as a "monster that has devastated our country." He made an appeal for international assistance, asking world leaders to "give a lending hand in responding to these very current calamities that have struck us."

Vanuatu is a tiny Pacific island nation of 267,000 people, made up of a chain of 13 principal and over 60 smaller islands extending 850 kilometers from north to south. It lies about a quarter of the way between Australia's east coast and Hawaii and is prone to natural disasters, such as cyclones, tsunamis and earthquakes. It is one of the poorest nations in the world.

According to aid workers on the ground, it is still too early to tell which parts of the archipelago have been worst affected, as access to so much of the country has been cut off and communications are still down.

Bildergalerie Vanuatu Zerstörung nach Zyklon Pam

Tens of thousands have been displaced since the cyclone hit Port Vila

Fear of disease

The humanitarian aid organization World Vision reckons that Cyclone Pam may have impacted as much as 50 percent of the country. "We've heard that whole villages have been blown away," said Chloe Morrison. "The homes have been completely flattened. They're just piles of timber, just totally decimated. The wind was so strong it just blew away huge chunks of debris."

This view is shared by Skirrow, who added that farmland has also been destroyed and that water supplies are likely to have been contaminated. "We hold grave fears for many coastal communities in the north of Vanuatu, where a lot of families are living in basic housing close by the water," Skirrow told DW.

At least 10,000 people are thought to have been left homeless, with most of them forced to spend a second night in shelters. "The most pressing immediate needs are for water, food, shelter and sanitation to prevent the spread of disease," said Skirrow, adding that the cyclone also destroyed many food supplies and farmland, which will put lots of pressure on communities for a long time to come.

Zyklon / Cyclone Pam, Satellitenaufnahme

Pam is the strongest cyclone on record to hit the island of Vanuatu

Aid flights arrive

In the meantime, the first aid shipments have begun to arrive. Flights from Australia and New Zealand brought medical experts, search and rescue teams as well as supplies of food, shelter, and medicine. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced an initial US$3.8 million aid package, while New Zealand pledged US$1.8 million.

Donations also include $2.9 million from the UK - which ruled Vanuatu together with France until independence in 1980 - and $1.05 million from the European Union. A UN team to support the coordination of the response was also set to arrive in the country on Sunday.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), UNICEF and UNHCR are also supporting critical areas such as shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene, and protection, according to OCHA.

"The most important thing for the international community to do is to give generously in order to help Vanuatu recover from this. The suffering will be long as people work to rebuild their lives," said Skirrow.

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