Tropical Cyclone Pam Pummels Pacific Islands

The Category Five storm is the most destructive to hit the region in years and “could potentially be one of the worst in Pacific history,” said New Zealand UNICEF executive director Vivien Maidaborn.

by Jack Gilbert
Mar 14 2015, 4:20pm

Facebook/Humans of Vanuatu and UNICEF Pacific

Cyclone Pam slammed into the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu Friday night, causing massive devastation and killing at least six people so far, according to UNICEF.

The Category 5 storm is the most destructive to hit the region in years and "could potentially be one of the worst in Pacific history," said New Zealand UNICEF Executive Director Vivien Maidaborn in a statement.

The Republic of Vanuatu is home to about 250,000 people, and is one of the most remote countries in the world. It is located 1,100 miles northeast of the coast of Australia and more than 1,300 miles north of the New Zealand city of Auckland. It is comprised of about 82 small volcanic islands, many of which are nearly impossible for humanitarian teams to access due to their isolation and current lack of power. 

Images of the immediate aftermath of the cyclone in the capital of Port Vila, where the initial deaths were confirmed, show upended trees, destroyed homes and extensive flooding.

Photo: Facebook/Humans of Vanuatu and UNICEF Pacific

Photo:Facebook/Humans of Vanuatu and UNICEF Pacific

Photo: Facebook/Humans of Vanuatu and UNICEF Pacific

Tom Skirrow, a spokesman for the aid group Save the Children, described to the BBC a scene of "complete devastation" with "people wandering the streets looking for help." He added that the total extent of the devastation is unlikely to be known for several days due to the remoteness of many of the islands comprising Vanatu.

Shortly after the storm made landfall, the Australian Red Cross issued an emergency appeal to provide humanitarian assistance to the residents of Vanatu. The aid group reported "unbelievable destruction" in Port Vila, saying on Twitter that most of the houses in the capital have been damaged or destroyed and tens of thousands of people are now homeless.

Exact estimates of the damage are slow to surface outside of the capital because communications and power have been cut throughout most of the country. Other reports indicate that dozens are feared dead and entire villages have been swept away by the storm.

"Unfortunately, the more that comes out, the worse it looks," Sune Gudnitz, a spokesman for U.N. aid agency OCHA told CNN. "I should say it's really a case of the worst-case scenario for the country and for the people."

Gusts of winds as high as 200 miles-per-hour blew in late Friday night and toppled buildings and trees. Driving around the island of Efate, which is home to the capital, aid worker Chloe Morrison said "Port Vila looks like looks like an absolute bomb has hit it," according to CNN.

The storm also hit nearby Pacific island countries of Tuvalu and Kiribati, causing massive flooding and destroying homes.

Photo: PLAN International Australia
Alice Clements, a representative for UNICEF, posted a video of herself sheltering during the climax of the storm on Friday night. "I'm just holding on for dear life here," she said. "This isn't fun. All I can do during this is think about the people in Vanuatu who have absolutely no shelter. This is going to be a horrific humanitarian disaster. We need your help."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928