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Cyclone Pam hits Vanuatu: Dozens feared dead

Saturday 14 March 2015 | Published in Regional


VANUATU – Cyclone Pam has made a direct hit on Vanuatu as a massive category 5 storm in what will surely be one of the worst disasters in the archipelago’s history, Fairfax New Zealand reports.

“The immediate concern is for a very high death toll but also an enormous amount of destruction and devastation,” Sune Gudnitz, head of the UN’s emergency relief arm, said from nearby Fiji.

The capital of Port Vila may have been spared the absolute worst-case scenario, the Weather Channel reported, but the islands of Erromango, Tanna, and Aneityum were in line for a direct hit.

At 4am local time Friday, the Cyclone was located directly over Erromango Island, population 1959 and was packing winds at its centre of 250kph, the Vanuatu MetService reported. It was tracking south southeastward,

“Heavy to torrential rainfalls and flooding, including flash flooding are expected over low lying areas and areas close to the river.”

On social media, those still with power and working internet shared stories of riding out the storm.

“Just got a text from a friend an hour ago in Malapoa, his roof has gone is being flooded and is burying himself in the mud under the foundations to try and stay put,” wrote Megan William on Facebook.

“Folks, I’ll be honest. It’s really bad out there,” wrote the administrator of the Humans of Vanuatu Facebook page. “The wind is howling with a deep roar that just doesn’t let up. Anyone not in shelter now is in mortal danger. Frankly, I don’t think our country will make it through this without some deep scars.

Vanuatu had urged residents to seek shelter as Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest seen in the region, threatens to bring destructive winds, rough seas and the potential for storm surges, flash floods and landslides.

The Vanuatu Meteorological Services warned of “very destructive winds and very rough to phenomenal seas with heavy swells.” The government has issued red alerts for the entire country.

Gudnitz said the government of Vanuatu had made emergency plans for more than 220,000 people – asking them to seek shelter in churches and schools.

About one sixth of the population live in the capital Port Vila, which suffered flooding and power cuts on Friday as the cyclone started to bear down on the town.

Gudnitz said there had been no reports of casualties or loss of life in Port Vila but OCHA said in a statement on Friday there were unconfirmed reports that 44 people had died in Penama province in the northeast.

The category 5 storm could destroy many homes in the poor island nation of 260,000 people as many of them were constructed with flimsy materials such as straw and corrugated metal, and were vulnerable to high winds and floods, aid workers said.

“Their plantations are usually the first to be destroyed so this would have a major impact on their livelihoods,” said Lesi Korovavala, Vanuatu representative of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Authorities and aid agencies were bracing for a huge cleanup and urgent medical needs as the storm passes.

Priorities would include ensuring drinking water was safe and that children could go to school, the United Nations children’s agency Unicef said.

Flash floods and strong winds have also hit Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, causing significant damage.

“This shows just how much the Pacific region needs investment and support for effective risk reduction measures against cyclones, perhaps more than any other place in the world,” said Aurelia Balpe, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the Pacific.