Thousands wait for Vanuatu relief

Published: Friday 20th March 2015 by The News Editor

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Thousands of people left homeless by a fierce cyclone remain stuck in shelters across Vanuatu, waiting for relief and longing for a return to normality as the death toll from the disaster rose by two to 13.

Australian and French troops arrived on the South Pacific nation’s hard-hit island of Tanna, where shaken residents were still waiting for help after their villages were flattened by Cyclone Pam’s 170mph winds last Saturday.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing figures from Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, upgraded the number of confirmed deaths to 13. Among the dead were seven people from Tafea province, which includes Tanna, and six from Shefa province, which includes the main island of Efate.

Given the immense power of the storm, the relatively low death toll is a testament to the residents’ experience in dealing with cyclones. In many villages, people found shelter in special structures built with sturdy walls that can withstand heavy winds.

Vanuatu’s government authorised the distribution of emergency food and water supplies to affected areas, but was still waiting to finish its damage assessment report before beginning a wider distribution of relief items.

“Some relief supplies have been starting to get there anyway, but the more organised and the larger relief efforts will start tomorrow,” said Osnat Lubrani, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Vanuatu.

“The relief has to start coming now, because if it doesn’t come in the next two days or so, then we will have problems with food and with water.”

Aerial surveys of the islands continued, with a New Zealand air force plane flying over Vanuatu’s northern islands to survey the damage and check on potential water sources for survivors.

Vanuatu is a nation of subsistence farmers, and many people depend on the food they grow to survive. The cyclone wiped out gardens, killed livestock and contaminated the water supply in many areas, and agricultural experts estimate that those displaced by the storm will run out of food in less than a week.

The Vanuatu government needs at least £1.35 million in financial aid to buy supplies and ship them to the worst-hit islands, the UN said. The government was asking for donations of enough biscuits, rice and canned protein to help keep islanders fed until June, when newly planted crops will be ready.

A barge carrying food, water and shelter materials arrived on Tanna today and the supplies were being taken to the island’s main hospital, said Tom Perry, spokesman for CARE Australia. Two assessment teams were also planning to reach remote sections of the island on that were reported to have been devastated, he said.

The storm turned Tanna’s lush tropical forests into a jumble of broken trunks and strewn branches, and damaged or destroyed at least 80% of homes. Critically, it also broke water pipes and destroyed vegetable patches, cutting off food and water sources for most of the island’s 30,000 residents. On the eastern side of the island near the belching volcano Yasur, people say the problems are compounded by volcanic ash that the winds spread everywhere, killing the plants.

Published: Friday 20th March 2015 by The News Editor

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