DOZENS of people were feared dead after a 168mph cyclone tore through Vanuatu in what could be one of the worst disasters in Pacific history.
There were unconfirmed reports of 44 deaths and entire villages being destroyed in the north east of the 80 island chain, the United Nations said.
Unicef estimated that at least half the archipelago’s 267,000 population had been hit - including 54,000 children.
Cyclone Pam’s winds pounded Vanuatu, north east of Australia, peaking around 1am today (2pm yesterday UK time).
A westward change of course from the cyclone’s expected track put populated areas like the island of Efate, where the capital Porte Vila is situated, directly in its path.
Power was cut across the islands, with many people also left without running water or communications.
Unicef New Zealand director Vivien Maidaborn said: “While it is too early to say for certain, early reports are indicating that this weather disaster could potentially be one of the worst in Pacific history.”
New Zealand has pledged £500,000 to help with relief efforts, while aid agencies Save the Children and World Vision launching appeals.
Tom Skirrow, Save the Children’s Vanuatu director, said, “The scene here is complete devastation – houses are destroyed, trees are down, roads are blocked and people are wandering the streets looking for help.
“Communications are down across much of the country with the total extent of the devastation unlikely to be known for several days.
“Aid agencies are facing a massive challenge to reach the most vulnerable children and families as quickly as possible.”
The UN said it was preparing to deploy emergency rapid response units and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said it would send a crisis response team if needed.
She said: “There are destructive winds, rain, flooding, landslides, sea surges and very rough seas, and the storm is exceedingly destructive there.”
The Foreign Office said it was working to establish whether any British nationals were affected by the disaster.
World Vision emergency communications officer Chloe Morrison, who is in Port Vila, said: “We’ve seen villages that have just literally been blown away.
“Local houses and leaf huts would have been picked up like confetti.
“I can say that for anybody who wasn’t in a secure shelter last night, it would have been a very, very tough time for them.”
Morrison said thousands of people in the capital - which has a population of 47,000 - had been moved to 23 evacuation centres.
But she said many people who used the shelters had stepped out only to be forced to return after finding their homes had lost their roofs or disappeared.
She said teetering trees and downed power lines in Port Vila have made many areas hazardous: “It’s still really quite dangerous outside. Most people are still hunkering down.
“The damage is quite extensive in Port Vila, but there are so many more vulnerable islands.
“I can’t even imagine what it’s like in those communities.”
Morrison said she was in a fully boarded-up, cyclone-proof house but still spent a frightening night because it was hit by a tree and a tin roof from a nearby home.
She said: “For more than seven hours, I have been listening to wind roaring like an angry ocean as it tried to pick the house off the ground.”
She said the first priority was to ensure people had adequate food, drinking water and shelter.
She said beyond that, there would need to be a long and concerted rebuilding effort in the months ahead.
She said: “People here are subsistence farmers. Crops will be wiped out. And any surplus food will likely rot by the end of the week because of all the rain.
“If we can’t reach some of these communities, hunger and a lack of clean water could really become a problem.”
Unicef spokeswoman Alice Clements, who is also in Port Vila, said the capital was like a ghost town as people took shelter.
Vanuatu president Baldwin Lonsdale, who was attending the World Conference on Disaster Risk and Reduction in Japan, said: “I do not really know what impact the cyclone has had on Vanuatu. I am speaking to you today with a heart that is so heavy.
“I stand to appeal on behalf of the government and the people to give a helping hand in this disaster.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon feared the damage and destruction could be widespread.
Attending the same conference, he said: “We hope the loss of life will be minimal.”
Oxfam executive director Dr Helen Szoke said it was deeply concerned for people in Vanuatu’s harder-to-reach outer islands.
She said: “These islands have much less infrastructure than the capital of Port Vila and are extremely remote and hard to reach in the best of times.
“We hold grave fears for the people on these outer and remote islands.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear we are now dealing with a worst-case scenario in Vanuatu.”
The charity said there is “real concern” of a high death toll.
Vanuatu has repeatedly highlighted that is suffering devastating effects from climate change.
The islands’ coastal areas are being washed away, forcing people to move to higher ground and cutting crop production.
However, scientists have said it is impossible to attribute individual major storms like Cyclone Pam to climate change.
Vanuatu is also at risk from earthquakes and tsunamis, and has one of the world’s most active volcanos on the southern island of Tanna.
Emmanuel Mori, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, said the dispersed communities and tiny land areas of many islands put such countries at a big disadvantage.
He said: “The world must act, and act fast”, appealing for more effective measures to curb carbon emissions which are seen as causing climate change.
Cyclone Pam has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for it to pass north of the country today and tomorrow.
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