Higher Death Toll Feared in Vanuatu in Wake of Tropical Cyclone Pam


Aid workers on the ground in the stricken South Pacific islands of Vanuatu said they feared the death toll would rise from eight after the tiny nation’s remote southern islands bore the brunt of Tropical Cyclone Pam, which tore through the archipelago on Friday.

The government of Vanuatu declared a state of emergency on Sunday morning for the province of Shefa, which includes the capital, Port-Vila.

The foreign minister of Australia, Julie Bishop, said that her country would provide about $3.8 million in aid, and Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said that two Royal Australian Air Force planes had left Australia for Vanuatu carrying fresh water, blankets and sleeping mats, water purification tablets and hygiene kits.

Once the weather abates, an Australian Air Force Orion maritime patrol aircraft was expected to survey the damage from the air. Winds gusting up to 180 miles an hour had been reported as the storm bore down on the islands.

Tom Perry, a Care Australia aid worker who flew into Vanuatu on one of the first air force aid flights from Brisbane, said the capital had been flattened.


“From the air, it has been devastated. In the capital, it is hard to find a building that has not been damaged,” he said in a telephone interview. “I am worried about the rural areas. As we flew in, my impression was that the islands have been very badly hit.”

He said he held grave fears for people living on Vanuatu’s southern islands, especially Tanna, where the eye of the cyclone passed. Vanuatu, which has a population of about 250,000, is made up of more than 80 islands, some sparsely settled. Tanna is south of the island of Efate, where the capital sits, and can be reached only by boat.

Mr. Perry said the storm had been ferocious and slow-moving.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said Tropical Cyclone Pam started in the sea near the Solomon Islands before intensifying and tracking south to Vanuatu.

By Thursday, the cyclone had sustained winds of more than 125 miles an hour and peak gusts measured at more than 180 miles an hour.

The bureau’s senior meteorologist, Craig Burke, said that satellite imagery showed the cyclone’s center as 18 to 25 miles wide, and that the eye-wall — where a cyclone’s fastest and most destructive winds are concentrated — was tracking across an area about 250 miles wide.

“These are very destructive winds,” Mr. Burke said in a telephone interview from Melbourne. “This is one of the most intense, severe tropical cyclones to have affected the southwest Pacific.”

It struck Vanuatu on Friday morning. “The southern islands were still affected Saturday,” Mr. Burke said, “before it tracked towards New Zealand.” By Sunday afternoon, the low-pressure system was heading toward the North Island of New Zealand, but the intensity of the wind had dropped, he said.

Driving rain and high seas destroyed resorts and left yachts and other boats smashed on piers and moorings. Crops have been flattened, and Vanuatu’s natural coral reefs are likely to have been damaged. Mr. Perry said as he drove from the airport to the capital that felled trees blocked roads and that a shipping container had been overturned by fierce winds.

Oxfam said in a news statement that about 90 percent of the housing in Port-Vila had been damaged, along with the morgue and the school. There was no power at the local hospital on Sunday.

“Vanuatu has a cyclone season,” the Oxfam country director in Port-Vila, Colin Collet van Rooyen, said by telephone. “But local residents say they have never experienced anything like this.”

Communications systems have been down, and aid agencies have had little information on the state of outlying islands, where residents often live in simple thatched homes.

Mr. Perry said a small village would normally have a school or church building that would provide some shelter against cyclonic winds. “But we have heard that roofs were just blown right off,” Mr. Perry said. “It is critical we get to these places as soon as we can.”