Relief supplies have begun arriving in cyclone-devastated Vanuatu as the Pacific nation declared a state of emergency amid reports entire villages were “blown away” when a monster storm swept through.
Late on Sunday the official death toll in the capital Port Vila stood at six, although aid workers said this was likely just a fraction of the fatalities nationwide.
Communications were down across most of the archipelago’s 80 islands, although the airport in Port Vila reopened with limited facilities, allowing much-needed aid in.
Two Australian air force planes landed with supplies of food, shelter, and medicine while a New Zealand military aircraft also arrived loaded with eight tonnes of tarpaulins, water containers, chainsaw packs, generators and water.
Commercial flights were scheduled to resume on Monday.
The government said it was still trying to assess the scale of the disaster unleashed when Super Cyclone Pam, a maximum category five system, vented its fury on Friday night, with winds reaching 320km/h an hour.
The UN had unconfirmed reports the cyclone had killed 44 people in one province alone and Oxfam said the destruction in Port Vila was massive, with 90 per cent of homes damaged.
“This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific, the scale of humanitarian need will be enormous … entire communities have been blown away,” said Oxfam’s Vanuatu director Colin Collet van Rooyen.
Pictures from the city showed streets littered with debris, cars crushed by trees, buildings blown to pieces and yachts washed inland.
Vanuatu police commissioner Colonel Job Esau said some areas of the capital – such as shopping districts and the waterfront – had been put off limits in a bid to stop looting as darkness approached.
“Facilities, installations, private sectors, and also from the yachts that have been washed away by the cyclone,” he told Radio New Zealand.
“Those are the only areas we have been targeting at the moment, and also some other very affected locations in and around Port Vila.”
Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale described the storm as “a monster that has devastated our country”, his voice breaking as he described Port Vila’s devastation.
“Most of the buildings have been destroyed, many houses have been destroyed, school, health facilities have been destroyed,” he told the BBC from Japan, where he was attending a disaster management conference.
Aid workers described scenes of devastation following what UNICEF spokeswoman Alice Clements said was “15-30 minutes of absolute terror” as the cyclone barrelled into the island.
“People have no water, they have no power, this is a really desperate situation right now. People need help,” she told AFP.
Clements said most of the dwellings on Port Vila’s outskirts, largely tin shacks, stood no chance.
World Vision spokeswoman Chloe Morrison said the situation appeared grim for the outlying islands in the nation of around 270,000.
“We’re seeing whole villages and houses blown away,” she said.
Save the Children’s head of humanitarian response Nichola Krey raised fears of food shortages in the subsistence economy and said conditions in evacuation centres were challenging.
“Many of the evacuation centres have lots of women and young children sleeping cheek-by-jowl, so health and protection will by key in the coming weeks,” she said.
Other Pacific nations were also struggling to cope. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati were both battered by the storm, although not to the extent of their neighbour.
NGOs have launched public appeals while governments around the globe pledged relief funding, including Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the European Union.