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Thursday 19 March 2015 | Published in Regional


PORT VILA – Emergency aid is beginning to reach some of the outlying islands of Vanuatu, after the Pacific archipelago was last week pummelled by Tropical Cyclone Pam.

Aid groups and survivors of Pam are hoping that early warnings, concrete-walled homes, cave refuges and a healthy respect for the sea have saved the South Pacific nation from a huge death toll.

Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu last week bringing wind gusts topping 300 kilometres per hour, torrential rain, huge seas and storm surges.

Relief agencies said conditions were among the most challenging they have faced, with concerns the official death toll of 11 confirmed fatalities will rise once officials reach all of the nation’s 65 inhabited islands to inspect the damage.

United Nations assessor Joe Lowry arrived on Tanna island – 200 kilometres south of capital Port Vila and home to 30,000 people – and said the large outer island would need a lot of help.

“They say they’ve got maybe one week of food left and we’re miles away from anywhere here,” he said.

“They’ve had no communication at all with the outside world since about 2.00am on Saturday morning, and they don’t know what’s happened.

“They’re asking me where the damage is worst. I’m telling them it’s worse here.”

Pacific island policy and development expert Tess Newton Cain, based in Port Vila, said the recovery effort in the capital was progressing well.

“The water has been super chlorinated to make sure everyone can be completely safe in the knowledge that it is safe to drink,” she said.

Cain said aid workers are also attempting to restore the water supply to communities outside of Port Vila.

Aid agencies and survivors are hoping traditional coping mechanisms may have helped prevent a much greater disaster.

“A lot of people in the remote areas have caves where they can go,” Jacob Kapere, a chief from the south of Tanna island, said.

“Some villages have cyclone houses which don’t have windows and have very low doors that you have to bend over to enter. Their thatch roofs are dug into the ground.”

Vanuatu is regularly lashed by cyclones and also prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, and is ranked as the world’s most vulnerable country to natural disasters.

“If you look at statistics of the Pacific of disasters over the years you will see that the death toll often is not very high,” Sune Gudnitz, Pacific head for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said.

“People have good coping mechanisms and it’s in their DNA that when storms are coming they know what to do.”

Small, scattered populations mean that death tolls in the South Pacific are relatively low, especially since the advent of mobile phones, real-time cyclone tracking and the internet – which all ensured Vanuatu had plenty of warning of Cyclone Pam.

Updates and colour-coded warnings were sent by radio and SMS, enabling residents to trace the path of the cyclone on maps specially printed in every telephone book, Oxfam Vanuatu country manager Colin Collett van Rooyen said.