SUVA (FIJI) – Aid agencies Monday described conditions in cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu as among the most challenging they have ever faced, as the Pacific nationâ€™s president blamed climate change for worsening the devastation.
Relief flights have begun arriving in the battered capital Port Vila after Super Tropical Cyclone Pam tore through on Friday night packing wind gusts of up to 320 kilometres (200 miles) an hour.
But workers on the ground said there was no way to distribute desperately needed supplies across the archipelagoâ€™s 80 islands, warning it would take days to reach remote villages flattened by the monster storm.
Save the Childrenâ€™s Vanuatu director Tom Skirrow told AFP the logistical challenges were even worse than Super Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013, killing more than 7,350 people and ravaging an area a big as Portugal.
â€œI was present for the Haiyan response and I would 100 percent tell you that this is a much more difficult logistical problem,â€ he said.
â€œThe numbers are smaller but the percentage of the population thatâ€™s been affected is much bigger.â€
The official death toll in Port Vila stands at six with more than 30 injured, although experts believe this is a likely fraction of the fatalities caused by the storm.
CARE International spokesman Tom Perry said flying into the capital, where up to 90 percent of homes have been damaged, was â€œstartling.â€
â€œItâ€™s been flattened, all that green is basically horizontal, trees are just kind of standing like broken toothpicks, itâ€™s quite startling… itâ€™s hard not to find a home that hasnâ€™t been hit,â€ he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Skirrow said 15,000 people were homeless in Port Vila alone and flights over remote islands had confirmed widespread destruction elsewhere in the impoverished nation of 270,000.
â€œItâ€™s frustrating, weâ€™re still stuck in a small part of Port Vila, we canâ€™t even get to the north of this island (Efate) to find out whatâ€™s going on,â€ he said.
â€œWeâ€™ve had aerial surveillance (of the outer islands)… all we can tell is what we suspected, that everythingâ€™s destroyed, but we donâ€™t know whatâ€™s happening with the people right now,â€ he said.
â€œI am absolutely sure that there will be at least 150,000 people significantly affected, most likely homeless, and about 75,000 of them will be children.â€
He said aid agencies were preparing supplies but it would likely be three days before airfields in remote islands were cleared.
Pacific nations regard themselves as at the frontline of climate change, given many are low-lying islands dangerously exposed to rising sea levels, and Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale said changing weather patterns were partly to blame for the destruction.
â€œClimate change is contributing to the disaster in Vanuatu,â€ he said in comments carried on Australian television ahead of his departure from Japan, where was attending a UN disaster meeting in Japan, to Sydney en-route to his homeland.
â€œWe see the level of sea rise, changing weather patterns, all these things are happening everywhere.
â€œThis year we have had more (rain) than other years and for the last couple of weeks, the heavy rain has exceeded what has happened in the past.â€
Communications were still down across most of the islands, although the airport in Port Vila was scheduled to re-open to commercial flights on Monday.
Military planes from Australia, New Zealand and France were arriving loaded full of food, shelter, medicine and generators, along with disaster relief teams.
â€œWhen you mount a response you have to do it fast because you have to be able to save lives immediately and if you canâ€™t do it fast thereâ€™s going to be significant loss of life,â€ Skirrow of Save the Children said.
â€œDeaths donâ€™t just happen on the night the cyclone hits, youâ€™re going to have kids with diarrhoea, potentially with diseases like measles if theyâ€™re stuck in an evacuation centre,â€ he said.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the cyclone, which was the maximum category five when it hit, had affected countries across the South Pacific.
â€œAt least nine nations have experienced some level of devastation including Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, Tuvalu, and Papua New Guinea,â€ it said.
The UN had unconfirmed reports that the cyclone had killed 44 people in one province alone on Vanuatu, and Oxfam said the destruction in Port Vila was massive.
World leaders, including Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the European Union have pledged relief while IMF chief Christine Lagarde said the fund stood ready to assist. – AFP