Officials struggled Sunday to determine the scale of the devastation wrought by a monstrous cyclone that tore through the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, with death counts varying in the single digits but expected to rise once communications are restored with outlying islands.
Packing winds of 168 mph, Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu early Saturday, leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.
Paolo Malatu, coordinator for the National Disaster Management Office, said two people were confirmed dead in the capital, Port Vila, with an additional 20 injured. Earlier, Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer, said Vanuatu's disaster response office told her agency that at least eight people died. She had also heard reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas.
The confusion over the death count is largely due to a near-total communications blackout across the country. With power lines and phone circuits down, officials in the capital had no way of knowing what the scope of the damage was on the outer islands, where the storm scored a direct hit.
“We haven't been able to communicate outside Port Vila,” Malatu said. “At this point, the damage is severe and we haven't had figures of how many houses destroyed. … It's really bad, it's really bad.”
Officials were planning to head to the outer islands in helicopters, small planes and military aircraft Monday to get a better sense of the destruction, Malatu said.
Telephone networks are notoriously spotty in South Pacific island nations such as Vanuatu, particularly in the aftermath of storms. It often takes days before networks can be restored, making it incredibly difficult for officials to quickly analyze the breadth of devastation.
The government declared a state of emergency across the country and Australia and New Zealand sent in relief supplies. The damaged airport was closed for commercial flights, but the first delivery of supplies arrived Sunday from the Red Cross, Malatu said.
“People are really upset and it's really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven't received a really big cyclone like this one,” said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu coordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350. “Most people right now, they are really homeless.”
He came upon one of the storm's victims Saturday, while surveying the damage along the coastline with other relief workers. The group spotted a man lying on the ground, not breathing, and rushed him to the hospital. By the time they arrived, however, he was dead, Nihmei said.
Structural damage across Port Vila was extensive, Nihmei said, with the majority of homes severely damaged or destroyed.
Some residents began cleaning up what was left of their wrecked houses and checking on family members. Relief workers, meanwhile, were trying to get temporary shelters to victims as fast as possible, Nihmei said.
Residents awoke to much calmer weather Sunday after many hunkered down in emergency shelters for a second straight night.
Many people who have ventured out from 23 emergency shelters around Port Vila have found their homes damaged or blown away altogether, Morrison of World Vision said. Teetering trees and downed power lines have made parts of the capital hazardous.
She said communications have been so problematic that her aid group hasn't yet been able to account for many of its own 76 staff members on the islands.
For anybody who wasn't in a secure shelter during the cyclone “it would have been a very, very tough time for them,” she said.
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
UNICEF estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.
The small island nation, about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with the island's coastal areas being washed away, forcing resettlement to higher ground and smaller yields on traditional crops.
Scientists say it's impossible to attribute single weather events like Cyclone Pam to climate change.
The cyclone has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for Cyclone Pam, which is forecast to pass north of the country on Sunday and Monday.