12 Mar 2015

Vanuatu braces for Cyclone Pam

9:26 pm on 12 March 2015

Thousands of people in Vanuatu are preparing for what could be one of the most devastating cyclones in decades.

Continuous heavy rains fall in Solomon Islands caused by Cyclone Pam in the country's east heading South East and away to Vanuatu.

Cyclone Pam brought heavy rain to Solomon Islands before heading south-east towards Vanuatu. Photo: RNZ / Margaret Maealasia

UNICEF is on standby and ready to respond with emergency supplies and personnel as Tropical Cyclone Pam inches closer to Vanuatu where approximately 260,000 people could be in the disaster zone.

The severe tropical cyclone was upgraded to a category four storm this morning (NZT) and is projected to become a category five super cyclone within the next 48 hours.

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UNICEF Pacific Communications Specialist Alice Clements, who is a New Zealander, arrived in Port Vila, Vanuatu yesterday, where she reported the progress of the storm that has tracked a path across the Pacific Ocean.

Cyclone Pam is strengthening as it moves towards Vanuatu.

Cyclone Pam shown in Earthnull's visualisation of global weather conditions based on supercomputer forecasts. Photo: Earthnull

Ms Clements spoke to Checkpoint today and said with these types of emergencies, they prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

"Port Vila is normally a sleepy sort of tourist town in the Pacific, but this morning it's bustling.

"There's trucks with plywood sheets going in all directions, all of the town has been boarded up, most of the town closed.

"People have been buying up hardware supplies and the chemist and supermarkets are very busy with people buying things like candles and matches; emergency supplies are selling out quickly."

Mrs Clements said the winds were already elevated and there was a sense that the storm was in her neighbourhood. She said UNICEF were focusing on getting people into safe buildings before it hit.

"Fundamentally people need to find a strong building to shelter in, one that's preferably away from the water," she said.

"We found in Typhoon Haiyan that the storm surge generated by the typhoon was pretty much as devastating as a tsunami. It killed more than 5000 people. It's important for people to shelter away from the water but also not too high up as the winds can damage structures."

UNICEF are concerned about the isolated communities spread across Vanuatu's 83 islands as most of their buildings are made from traditional materials such as light timber and grasses.

Ms Clements said they were encouraging people to shelter in community churches and schools as they were structurally safer.

Mrs Clements said it had been quite the experience so far.

"It's quite a surreal experience to have a large cyclone which people say is category four or five coming our way, and to know it's really coming straight at us."

Cyclone Pam is expected to hit the capital, Port Vila, tomorrow with winds that could reach 200 kilometres an hour.

It is feared it could be as bad as Cyclone Uma which smashed into the town in 1987 leaving 5000 people homeless.

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