15 Mar 2015

State of emergency declared for parts of Vanuatu

5:36 pm on 15 March 2015

Vanuatu's government has declared a State of Emergency in Shefa province, which includes the capital Port Vila, and says its likely a national State of Emergency will be declared soon.

Eight people are confirmed to have died across the country's 65 inhabited islands after Cyclone Pam tore through the South Pacific archipelago packing winds of up to 270 kilometres per hour.

View of the destruction wrought by Pam in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila.

View of the destruction wrought by Pam in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila. Photo: AFP / World Vision

There are unconfirmed reports of at least 44 dead in the northern islands and up to 10,000 people have been left homeless in the capital Port Vila alone.

The lands minister, Ralph Regenvanu, said the declaration had only been made in Shefa because it has been impossible to get any information or assessments from other provinces.

"We anticipate that we will be declaring States of Emergency for the rest of the country as soon as we have some understanding of what's been happening out there. At the moment it's just for Shefa province, but that's only because we don't know what's happening anywhere else and once we do this aerial survey we anticipate that that State of Emergency will be extended to all of the country," said Mr Regenvanu.

He said aerial surveillance is taking place this afternoon which he hopes will provide some information about what's been happening in the rest of the country, which has been cut off from communication.

He said Cyclone Pam is the biggest disaster Vanuatu has ever had and it will need a massive international response.

Relief flights arriving

Flights carrying relief supplies from Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia have been arriving this afternoon in Vanuatu with the airport cleared for the arrival of military aircraft.

The airport was flooded yesterday but the Lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu said the runway has now been cleared for military flights.

He said the control tower and navigation equipment are out of action and there has been significant damage to the international terminal.

The aftermath of Cyclone Pam

The aftermath of Cyclone Pam Photo: AFP

The International Red Cross is urging people in Vanuatu to get to evacuation centres around the country and register so they're in line to receive help.

The head of the Red Cross regional office in Suva, Aurelia Balpe said 1200 tarpaulins, 240 first aid kits and 900 water containers, as well as a shelter specialist, were on the way to Port Vila on a New Zealand air force plane which left Auckland this morning.

Ms Balpe said the Red Cross was conducting assessments at the 26 formal evacuation centres in Vanuatu as well as the many other informal centres like churches around the country.

"I assume that many people are in shock and disoriented and because of the debris across the roads and possibly the widespread damage people are possibly unsure of where to seek help. The Red Cross would say please go to the Vanuatu Red Cross office, go to the evacuation centres, register yourself so that you can be accessing that relief."

Ms Balpe said water sanitation experts were on the ground in Vanuatu working out how to get clean water to people in order to stem the outbreak of waterborne diseases.

Waves and scattered debris along the coast, caused by Cyclone Pam

Waves and scattered debris along the coast, caused by Cyclone Pam Photo: AFP

Port Vila "unrecognisable"

Meanwhile authorities and residents in Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, are trying to assess the damage to the town after cyclone Pam destroyed much of it.

Our correspondent in Port Vila, Len Garae, said the town was unrecognisable from what it was two days ago and most of the town's infrastructure had sustained serious damage.

Vanuatu's government estimates that 80 percent of homes have either been destroyed or sustained significant damage.

Len Garae said the town centre was a mess, the hospital has had part of its roof blown off, and the harbour is a scene of devastation, with yachts, and even interisland ferries, blown ashore.

"It is not what it was last week. The beautiful seafront with all the swaying palm trees and flowers. Now, you can hardly recognise anything. The sea has come ashore and taken away stalls where tourists would go and buy what they wanted to take home as souvenirs. Now there is nowhere that you can see these things anymore. There is debris everywhere," he said.

It is feared the death toll in Vanuatu from Cyclone Pam will rise significantly once relief workers make their way to remote areas.

The Red Cross says Vanuatu government aircraft were due to conduct a flyover today of the directly hit southern provinces to assess damage and whether the airport on the island of Tanna is accessible.

Disaster officials said 80 percent of houses, some government offices and other infrastructure in Port Vila were destroyed, along with part of the main hospital.

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Whole villages "blown away"

Aid workers said whole villages in and around the city had been blown away, during what was described as one of the worst disasters in Pacific history.

World Vision said it was starting to distribute basic supplies to those who need it most.

Its Emergency Communications Officer Chloe Morrison said people would now be in desperate need.

"Communities, families, children they need access to clean water. They need access to food and with the type of destruction that has gone on here in Vanuatu they definitely need shelter," she said.

"World Vision has been able to get some of those goods here already before Cyclone Pam hit."

Vanuatu's capital Port Vila following Cyclone Pam.

Vanuatu's capital Port Vila following Cyclone Pam. Photo: AFP

The Head of UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Sune Gudnitz said a rapid response team would be in Port Vila today.

"Which will then help the government and the partners on the ground co-ordinate and kick the operation off and being self reliant in a number of areas, in communication for example and assessment so that we can get everything up and running," he said.

UNICEF said it would continue to assess the situation and would call for help from its Australian and New Zealand colleagues when needed.

Port Vila resident Ben Bohane told the ABC it was likely that those in the outer islands would have felt the worst of the storm.

"Many of the outer islands are a lot more exposed than we are here in Port Vila. That means we have a lot more concrete houses and that sort of thing," he said.

"So people here in Vila were probably in a better position to weather the storm."

Watch a video from Port Vila - taken by Isso Nihmei

Vanuatu's President appealed for international following the cyclone.

Speaking at a United Nations disaster conference in Japan President, Baldwin Lonsdale, made an emotional appeal for emergency aid.

His voice wavering, Mr Lonsdale told the conference he has a heavy heart and is asking the global community to give a lending hand.

NZ Government lends a hand

A New Zealand Airforce Hercules is leaving from Auckland today with aid supplies for Vanuatu.

The plane is taking medicines, drinking water, blankets and other emergency supplies for the battered islands.

An Airforce Orion was already in the disaster area.

It was called into the Pacific last week for a search and rescue operation and was able to switch to an aerial inspection of the cyclone damage.

New Zealand will also contribute $1 million of initial funding to Pacific nations battered by Cyclone Pam.

The funding includes $200,000 to respond to specific requests for assistance in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands.

And $400,000 will be given to NGO's in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands to help with their aid effort.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said a RNZAF P3 Orion had conducted an aerial damage assessment over Tuvalu.

He said the Government would continue to watch the situation and will give more aid if needed.

And Britain announced it will donate almost $4 million towards relief efforts in Vanuatu.

It said $2 million will be made available immediately to international aid agencies already working in the region.

VSA volunteers now accounted for

Earlier, Volunteer Service Abroad said five New Zealand volunteers and staff working in Vanuatu are unaccounted for following Cyclone Pam.

VSA said on its website that as of 6pm, they had established the safety of 18 out of 23 New Zealand volunteers and staff - but they are reported to be safe now.

It said those that are safe were mostly based in Port Vila, with others in Santo and Luganville.

A mother and child seek safety in Vanuatu.

A mother and child seek safety in Vanuatu. Photo: Isso Nihmei Vanuatu Coordinator

Tuvalu - waves going through a local home

Tuvalu - waves going through a local home Photo: Supplied