Food, water rushed to devastated Vanuatu islands

2015-03-18 11:11
A family sitting among the remains of their home in a village called Taunono which was destroyed by Cyclone Pam. (File, AFP)

A family sitting among the remains of their home in a village called Taunono which was destroyed by Cyclone Pam. (File, AFP)

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Port Vila - Relief workers rushed to deliver desperately needed food and water on Wednesday to survivors living on Vanuatu's outer islands, after a monstrous cyclone wiped out entire villages and flattened vast swathes of the South Pacific nation's landscape.

Teams of aid workers and government officials were planning to send a boat packed with supplies to hard-hit Tanna Island, where aerial assessments showed more than 80% of homes or buildings had been partially or completely destroyed by Cyclone Pam.

Lack of food was a growing worry for those who survived the storm, which packed winds of 270km/h when it struck on Saturday.

"Everyone in Tanna and other islands in the south, they really live subsistence lives, so they grow what they need for a short period... And the reality is that much of that would have been washed away by this storm," said Tom Perry, spokesperson for CARE Australia. "That's a grave concern because we desperately need to get food to people soon."

Flattened landscape

Flyover crews who surveyed the outer islands saw a flattened landscape and widespread destruction, with survivors below trying to signal them for help, said Colin Collett van Rooyen, Vanuatu director for aid group Oxfam.

Teams of aid workers and government officials carrying medical and sanitation supplies, water, food and shelter equipment finally managed to land on Tanna and neighboring Erromango Island on Tuesday, after being stymied in their efforts for days by poor weather and a breakdown in the nation's communications networks. The two islands were directly in the path of the storm.

An aerial assessment showed extensive damage on Erromango, with communities ranging from 70% to 100% destroyed on the archipelago's fourth-largest island. On other islands, Collett van Rooyen said plane crews saw people had made big, white "H'' marks on the ground in multiple villages, and people on Tongoa island flashed mirrors to attract attention.

Radio and telephone communications with the outer islands were just beginning to be restored, but remained patchy four days after Cyclone Pam tore through the islands.

Measles fear

Meanwhile, fears of a measles outbreak prompted aid workers to launch an emergency vaccination drive for children across Vanuatu, which has low rates of immunisation and already suffered one outbreak of the disease earlier this month. Teams were traveling to evacuation centers and other storm-ravaged areas around Port Vila to vaccinate children, provide Vitamin A and hand out bed nets to help stave off mosquito-borne malaria, according to UNICEF.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 11 people were confirmed dead, including five on Tanna, lowering their earlier report of 24 casualties after realizing 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 reflects the difficulty of handling a disaster that struck whole communities on remote islands with a near-total communications blackout.

"Vanuatu is a challenging place at the best of times, in the sense of getting around and logistics," Perry said. "So a situation like this is pretty testing."

Stand together

Baldwin Lonsdale, Vanuatu's president, returned to his country on Tuesday night from Japan, where had been attending a UN disaster conference when the cyclone struck.

"I trust the people of Vanuatu. I trust my government. I trust the people that they will stand united together as a nation and to rebuild the nation," he said.

Poor weather and communications issues have hampered relief workers efforts to reach the outer islands for days. 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. On the main island of Efate, bridges were down outside Port Vila, impeding vehicle traffic.

"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 Collett van Rooyen of Oxfam.

The destruction on Tanna was significantly worse than in the nation's capital of Port Vila, where Pam destroyed or damaged 90% of the buildings, Perry said.

"The airport was badly damaged, the hospital was badly damaged but still functioning... there's one doctor there at the moment," he said. "It's obviously a pretty trying situation."

Vanuatu has a population of 267 000 people. About 47 000 people live in the capital.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 3 300 people were sheltering in dozens of evacuation centers on the main island of Efate and in the provinces of Torba and Penama.

Read more on:    un  |  vanuatu  |  weather  |  cyclones

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