WATCH ABOVE: Orphaned babies struggle without milk as Vanuatu aid efforts continue
PORT VILA, Vanuatu – When Cyclone Pam ripped across the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, there were fears its monstrous winds could kill thousands. But as aid workers finally reached the archipelago’s hard-hit outer islands on Wednesday, it appeared that residents’ familiarity with disasters and careful planning had spared the lives of most.
The scale of the devastation was just beginning to emerge as relief workers rushed to deliver food and water to the archipelago’s outer islands, which bore the full fury of the storm that struck Saturday with winds of 270 kilometres (168 miles) per hour. Yet despite finding scores of flattened villages, the death toll in the nation of 267,000 people stood at 11.
Many locals took shelter in larger buildings such as schools and churches – a practice that relief groups have impressed upon Vanuatuans as a life-saving measure during storms.
Vanuatu is frequently battered by cyclones in the southern hemisphere’s summer months and lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” where earthquakes and volcanic activities are common – and residents have set up buildings designated as evacuation centres.
“A lot of people did evacuate,” said Hanna Butler, an aid worker with the Red Cross in Vanuatu. “Here in the Pacific, we know that disasters happen every year at this time.”
Despite the high survival rate, officials and relief teams were growing increasingly worried about long-term prospects, with food and water scarce in the worst-hit areas and access to some of the more remote islands remaining difficult.
Planes carried food, water and medical supplies to Tanna Island, where aerial assessments showed more than 80 per cent of homes or buildings had been partially or completely destroyed. A boat stocked with canned goods, biscuits and water was expected to head to the island on Thursday.
“There’s a landscape of skeleton trees and patchworks of square outlines where houses used to be,” said Angus Hohenboken from aid group Oxfam. “It’s really quite a saddening sight.”
Lack of food was a rising concern for those who survived the storm, which destroyed gardens and fruit trees that locals depend on to survive.
“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, spokesman for CARE Australia. “That’s a grave concern because we desperately need to get food to people soon.”
Relief workers also reached Tanna’s neighbouring island of Erromango, where an aerial assessment showed communities had been 70 to 100 per cent destroyed. On other islands, plane crews saw people had made big, white “H” marks on the ground, and people on Tongoa island flashed mirrors to attract attention, said Colin Collett van Rooyen, Vanuatu director for Oxfam.
On Tanna, the cyclone’s fierce winds uprooted water tanks and blew them kilometres (miles) away, said Hohenboken from Oxfam, who travelled to the island. Crops were demolished and electricity was out, as the solar panels that power many homes were destroyed.
The island’s hospital was operating with a diesel generator, but there was only enough fuel to last for two weeks, and some of the hospital’s water supply was unusable due to contamination, he said.
Some residents were already beginning the process of rebuilding their houses and some had started re-planting crops, Hohenboken said.
“I think Vanuatuans are very resilient and kind of motivated people, but it’s been a shock to this community,” he said. “It was a storm on a scale that people really had no frame of reference for.”
The storm, though massive, did not affect all islands equally. Butler, of the Red Cross, travelled to the southern islands of Futuna and Aneityum on Wednesday, and found both relatively unscathed. The village chief of Futuna told Butler that the only real damage was to the island’s banana plantations and gardens; the sturdily-built houses weathered the storm just fine, and there were no deaths.
“Fly over Tanna, there’s just not a green leaf left on a tree, and not so far away, these two little islands have really survived and the storm has obviously bypassed them,” she said.
Meanwhile, fears of a measles outbreak prompted aid workers to launch an emergency vaccination drive for children across Vanuatu, which has low rates of immunization and already suffered one outbreak of the disease earlier this month. Teams were travelling to evacuation centres 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.
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.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 3,300 people were sheltering in dozens of evacuation centres on Efate and in the provinces of Torba and Penama.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.