Relief workers who have struggled for days to access remote areas of Vanuatu that were ravaged by a fierce cyclone finally reached some of the islands on Tuesday, as an Australian official reported scenes of widespread destruction.
Radio and telephone communications with the South Pacific nation’s hard-hit outer islands were just beginning to be restored, but remained incredibly patchy three days after what the country’s president called a “monster” storm.
Australian military planes that conducted aerial assessments of the outer islands found significant damage, particularly on Tanna Island, where it appears that more than 80 percent of homes and other buildings were partially or completely destroyed, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said.
“We understand that the reconnaissance imagery shows widespread devastation,” Bishop said. “Not only buildings flattened – palm plantations, trees. It’s quite a devastating sight.”
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 11 people were confirmed dead, including five on Tanna Island, 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 over how many died in the storm reflects the difficulty officials face as they try to deal with a disaster spread across many remote islands amid a near-total communications blackout.
Relief workers have been battling poor weather and communications issues for days, hampering much of their efforts to reach the outer islands. A break in the weather on Tuesday gave them a chance to try again, though access remained difficult. 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.
“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 Colin Collett van Rooyen, Vanuatu director for Oxfam. “Until today, the weather has been particularly cloudy, so even the surveillance flights would have had some difficulty picking up good imagery.”
Teams of aid workers and government officials carrying medical and sanitation supplies, water, food and shelter equipment managed to land on Tanna and neighboring Erromango Island on Tuesday afternoon, Collett van Rooyen said. The two islands were directly in the path of the storm.
The relief teams were planning to meet with local disaster officials and conduct damage assessments, said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, disaster coordinator for the U.N.’s humanitarian affairs office.
Some of the islands were just beginning to get their phone networks running again, and technical crews were en route to set up data and voice satellite communications. Officials hoped to restore communications to the islands within 48 hours, Stampa said.
Photos of the islands taken by crews on board Australian, New Zealand and New Caledonian military surveillance flights were being analyzed by officials in the capital, Port Vila. The information will help officials dispatch aid to the worst-hit areas, Stampa said.
“Tanna has a problem with its water anyway; it’s dry outside the disaster season, so there’s a reasonable chance there’s a lack of water there,” Stampa said.
Collett van Rooyen spoke to another aid worker who had managed to land in Tanna.
“His description in two words is ‘utter devastation,'” he said.
Vanuatu’s president, meanwhile, was rushing back to his country, which has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with coastal areas being washed away.
Looking weary and red-eyed, Baldwin Lonsdale told The Associated Press that Cyclone Pam destroyed or damaged 90 percent of the buildings in the capital alone. Lonsdale was interviewed on Monday in Sendai, in northeastern Japan, where he had been attending a U.N. disaster conference when the cyclone struck. He was expected to arrive in Vanuatu on Tuesday evening.
“This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster, a monster,” he said. “It’s a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu. After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out.”
Lonsdale said because of the communications problems, even he could not reach his family. “We do not know if our families are safe or not. As the leader of the nation, my whole heart is for the people, the nation,” he said.
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 people. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
The U.N. 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.
Officials were struggling to determine the scale of devastation from the cyclone, which tore through the nation early Saturday, packing winds of 270 kilometers (168 miles) per hour. Bridges were down outside Port Vila, making travel by vehicle impossible even around Efate. SAPA