Rescue teams reach Vanuatu islands, death toll lowered

2015-03-17 12:18
Residents clean up their homes in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila on March 17, 2015 after Cyclone Pam ripped through the island nation. (Jeremy Piper, AFP)

Residents clean up their homes in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila on March 17, 2015 after Cyclone Pam ripped through the island nation. (Jeremy Piper, AFP)

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Tanna - Residents of the main town in the southern Vanuatu island of Tanna appear to have come through the worst of the cyclone that tore through the South Pacific nation with widespread devastation but not the heavy death toll initially feared.

Disaster management officials and relief workers are still battling to get rescue teams on many of the islands that bore the brunt of Cyclone Pam's gusts of more than 300km/h on Friday and Saturday.

With communications cut off and reconnaissance flights revealing destroyed houses, shredded forests and damaged buildings, international aid agencies had been particularly worried about Tanna, which took the full force of the storm.

A Reuters witness on the island of 29 000 people, about 200km south of the capital, said that while damage was extensive, it appeared most of the population had survived by sheltering in schools, churches and other sturdy buildings.

There were unconfirmed reports of four deaths in and around the main town of Tanna.

The United Nations said on Tuesday the official death toll from the cyclone was 11, revising down its earlier figure of 24, but many officials anticipate that number will rise once they are able to more thoroughly inspect the outer islands of the scattered archipelago.

"The aerial reconnaissance flights confirmed significant damage in the southern islands, particularly Tanna island, where it appears that more than 80% of houses and buildings have been partially or completely destroyed," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Canberra.

Food scarce

In Vanuatu capital Port Vila the clean-up was progressing after trees were uprooted and homes flattened, but there were worries about food scarcity and healthcare after the main local food market was destroyed and the city's hospital severely damaged.

Bishop said Australia was sending a 20-strong emergency medical assistance team of doctors, nurses, paramedics and a pharmacist. They plan to set up a temporary ward in the car park of the damaged Port Vila hospital capable of treating up to 40 patients. Thousands are still staying in shelters overnight, with an 18:00-06:00 curfew in place to prevent looting.

The majority of locals rely on foods sold at the downtown market such as taro, island cabbage, bananas, kumara and yams for their staple diet.

Shops selling tinned food were open and stocked in the capital, but most locals do not have the money to buy those foods and many were reported scavenging for bananas or fruit.

"We have water, but the situation is very bad because people don't have local food," shop owner Colette Calvo said. "All they can eat is food like bananas that they pick up off the ground and they can get sick."

Australia, which has already sent five planes with personnel and humanitarian supplies, dispatched another three planes on Tuesday. It also began loading up its emergency response ship HMAS Tobruk, which is capable of driving up onto beaches, for possible deployment. A French navy ship was also being sent from nearby New Caledonia, while a US Marine Corps-based Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief team was also being made ready, Australian defence officials said.

Tourism hit

Formerly known as the New Hebrides, Vanuatu, one of the world's poorest nations, is a sprawling cluster of more than 80 islands and 260 000 people, 2 000km northeast of the Australian city of Brisbane.

Perched on the geologically active "Ring of Fire", it suffers from frequent earthquakes and tsunamis and has several active volcanoes, in addition to threats from storms and rising sea levels.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) had a team of engineers in Vanuatu before the cyclone struck, finalising plans for sanitation works, road rehabilitation and port development.

As well as a contributing an emergency A$5 million disaster relief package, the agency was working to speed up those existing projects.

"It was good coincidence," Andrea Iffland, the regional director of ADB's Pacific Liaison and Coordination Office in Sydney. "Quite a lot of preparation work has already been done; subject to the availability of contractors, we hope to really expedite it."

Tourism, which accounts for about 40% of Vanuatu's economy, has been badly affected, with Port Vila closed to cruise liners indefinitely.

"We are keen to go back as soon as possible, given how important this industry is to the Vanuatu economy, but we won't go back until the authorities give us the all clear," said David Gray, a spokesman for the Australian arm of cruise company Carnival Corp.

Almost 200 people, most of whom were Australian tourists or workers, were evacuated on two Australian military flights. Australia had another plane on standby on Tuesday to evacuate the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and children.

Aid officials said the storm was comparable in strength to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6 000 people.

Read more on:    vanuatu  |  australia  |  weather  |  cyclones

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