Tropical Cyclone Pam: Vanuatu devastated by one of the strongest tropical cyclones in Pacific; at least four dead in Port Vila

Updated 14 March 2015, 18:15 AEDT

At least four people are dead in Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila, a witness says, after one of the strongest tropical cyclones to have hit the South Pacific leaves a trail of destruction.

At least four people have died in Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila, a witness says, in one of the strongest tropical cyclones to have hit the South Pacific.

It comes amid unconfirmed reports that more than 40 people may have perished elsewhere in Vanuatu as a result of Cyclone Pam.

One person has also died in Papua New Guinea’s West New Britain province after a tree fell onto a house during strong winds driven by the storm.

Vanuatu coordinator of climate change not-for-profit organisation 350, Isso Nihmei, said he and others tried to rescue three people in Port Vila who later died in hospital.

“We heard some of the people who were living close. They were shouting and calling us. So once we went down there, we saw this guy who was already dead,” he said.

“There [were] other people on the other side, so we went down to rescue them but they were really weak.

“We got them to hospital but they died in half an hour.”

Mr Nihmei said they had injuries to their faces and bodies and were living close to the sea. He said they had chosen to stay because of their boats.

Power and communications are down across much of the country which has made it difficult for authorities to confirm damage and a death toll.

Humanitarian organisations have warned of “complete annihilation” in Port Vila, where the cyclone reportedly tore through at 340 kilometres per hour.

But some fear the devastation could be even worse in the outer islands.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were no official reports of deaths or injuries, but there was an unconfirmed report that 44 people died in the central Penama province.

Pam was about 280 kilometres south of Tanna, in Vanuatu’s southernmost province, at 4:00pm (AEDT), moving southwards at 41 kilometres per hour, according to Vanuatu’s Meteorological Services.

Residents of Port Vila spent the night bunkering down as the terrifying storm raged, waking to find trees had been uprooted, homes destroyed and areas flooded.

Significant damage after Tropical Cyclone Pam in Port Vila. (Credit: YouTube/Isso Nihmei, 350 Vanuatu Coordinator)

Thousands in need emergency accommodation

Save the Children Vanuatu country director Tom Skirrow said an estimated 10,000 people would need emergency accommodation in the capital.

He said it could be up to eight weeks before people were able to get back to re-build their houses.

“As people stayed in their houses last night they certainly won’t want to stay in them now given the state of them,” he said.

“So there’ll probably be about 10,000 people in the evacuation centres just in Port Vila alone.”

He said it was still difficult to determine the impact of the storm because phone lines were down across the country.

“All we know for sure is a cyclone like this will have wrought significant devastation across the country,” he said.

Temporary dwellings which most Vanuatu people live in — corrugated iron houses — … have been completely annihilated.

Nichola Krey, Save the Children

He said the clean-up effort had started in Port Vila but was minimal.

“There are only so many staff available from the public works department. Some people have started to go out and clear some roads so that access is possible but only the main thoroughfare roads.”

Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in Port Vila said the damage was likely to be great.

“It felt like the world was going to end. It’s like a bomb has gone off in the centre of the town. There is no power. There is no water,” she said.

“We are hearing unconfirmed reports of casualties and lots of wounded. People are asking for help.

“Even in Port Vila there are still gale-force winds.”

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia’s High Commissioner in Vanuatu, Jeremy Bruer, had spoken to the country’s prime minister to offer assistance.

“We are deeply concerned by reports that lives have been lost in northern Vanuatu,” Ms Bishop told reporters.

“They are still unconfirmed but we are deeply concerned by those reports.”

She said there had been no reports of Australian deaths but said there were more than 800 Australians registered in Vanuatu. She said that number, however, could exceed 3,000.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has also offered assistance. She said specialist crews could be deployed to the area to help restore power if needed.

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