Super Cyclone Pam swept across Vanuatu last Friday with maximum winds more than 200 mph (320 kph). Average wind speeds of up to 270 kilometres per hour, make the Category 5 cyclone’s power comparable to Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013.
Officials are reporting that the Cyclone damaged or destroyed 90% of the homes in the Vanuatu capital of Port Vila, wrecked most of the Capital’s infrastructure, and killed at least 10 people. With communication still down between many of the islands, the full extent of the damage, death and injury toll is still being assessed.
State of Emergency
Seventy percent of its population lives in these very poor remote areas, which already have minimal infrastructure. It’s said to be one of the worst disasters in the region’s history.
“This a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu,” Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale to Al Jazeera. “I term it as a monster, a monster. It’s a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu.”
Lonsdale has declared a state of emergency and put out a call for humanitarian aid for the most basic necessities, including drinking water, medicine, clothing, eating utensils and other household items. Australia, New Zealand and the UK have already responded to his pleas.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Kyung-Wha Kang, a UN Assistant Secretary-General for the UN humanitarian office, told Al Jazeera that determining the extent of the damage “is extremely difficult” because communication have been totally cut off especially in some of the islands.
The airport in Port Vila has reopened, allowing aid and relief flights to reach the country. But workers on the ground said there was no way to distribute desperately needed supplies across the archipelago’s 80 islands.
Save the Children’s Vanuatu director Tom Skirrow told AFP news agency the logistical challenges were even worse than Super Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013, killing more than 7,350 people and ravaging an area a big as Portugal.
Skirrow said 15,000 people were homeless in Port Vila alone and flights over remote islands had confirmed widespread destruction elsewhere in the impoverished nation of 270,000.
In an interview with Associated Press, Vanuatu President Lonsdale put the blame squarely on climate change.
“Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu,” he said. “We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year.”
Anote Tong, president of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, whose existence is jeopardized by rising sea levels, which was hit by Cyclone Pam to a lesser extent, agreed, saying, “Climate change has exacerbated the severity of natural disasters and frequency, that’s worsening the impacts on different communities. I put forward this argument that climate change and disasters are so integrated and so related.”
Ironically that Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu while Lonsdale and other Vanuatu government officials were in Sendai, Japan, attending the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. They immediately headed home, where action was needed more than conversation.
World Bank Envoy Weighs In
World Bank vice president and special envoy for climate change Rachel Kyte told Agence France Press that those at the conference seemed not to connect climate policy and the growing number of extreme weather events such as Cyclone Pam.
“I worry that a sense of urgency and a sense of shared ambition is not at the right level,” she told AFP at the Disaster Risk Reduction Conference.
“The fact is in the past three or four years we’ve seen category fives coming with a regularity we’ve never seen before. And that has some relationship with climate change. It is undisputable that part of the Pacific Ocean is much warmer today than in previous years, so these storms are intensifying. We may have helped communities become resilient to the kinds of storms we experienced in the past, but resilience to a storm with wind speed of up to 300 kilometres per hour— that’s a whole new intensity,” added Kyte.
Agencies Helping Vanuatu
Vanuatu is an Oceanian island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean, is some 1,750 kilometres (1,090 mi) east of northern Australia, 500 kilometres (310 mi) northeast of New Caledonia, west of Fiji, and southeast of the Solomon Islands, near New Guinea.
Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago consisting of about 82 relatively small, geologically newer islands of volcanic origin (65 of them inhabited), with about 1,300 kilometres (810 mi) between the most northern and southern islands
Vanuatu’s diving has been known for its superb visibility, warm water and world-class dive sites. Underwater Vanuatu offers plunging cliffs, grottoes and overhangs plus huge caves and intricate tunnels and abundant sea life. But the true drawcard has been the 22,000 ton luxury liner SS “President Coolidge” – the largest wreck dive in the world