First deaths confirmed after Tropical Cyclone Pam roars over Vanuatu

VANUATU/VILLA, March 14: A tropical cyclone killed at least six people in Vanuatu, aid workers said Saturday, confirming casualties from one of the most powerful storms to make landfall.

Hardly a tree stood straight after Pam bellowed across the Pacific Island nation

UNICEF, which confirmed the deaths, said many more fatalities are feared.

A radio silence has set in on possible casualties, and it is making Sune Gudnitz feel uneasy.

“Unfortunately, we have nothing from outside of Port Vila, which is in itself a bad sign,” the UN humanitarian spokesman said. Wiped out communications could indicate mass desolation.

“We’ve heard there has been quite a lot of destruction up north.” That’s where Pam’s eye roared through.

Hardly a straight tree

In the capital Port Vila, hardly a tree stood straight in the first images of damage on Saturday.

Many lay toppled to the ground, along with corrugated metal roofing strewn around like silver wrappers.

Pam had churned through the South Pacific with the might of a Category 5 hurricane before notching down to Category 4. Local meteorologists had predicted 155 mph (250 kmh) winds would raze parts of the inland nation.

There were gusts up to 190 mph (305 kmh), the typhoon warning center in Hawaii said. And the cyclone’s damage has awed relief workers.

“Unbelievable destruction,” the Australian Red Cross called it, particularly in terms of human suffering. “Humanitarian needs will be enormous. Many people have lost their homes. Shelter, food and water (are) urgent priorities,” the aid agency said in a tweet.

Strongest since Haiyan

Pam is the strongest storm to make landfall in the Pacific typhoon region since Haiyan ground over the Philippines in 2013, obliterating parts of Leyte.

It shattered homes and trees into match sticks, and killed more than 6,000 people.

Vanuatu’s capital may have been luckier than Leyte. Many buildings in the first images appeared intact, but that may prove deceptive.

City on lockdown

Many roads are obstructed in Port Vila, and police have put the city on temporary lockdown, Gudnitz said. But there are some solid structures there to protect people. The capital may be a fortunate exception.

The nation, which lies east of Australia, is an archipelago comprising 83 small islands, many remote and lacking infrastructure. People away from the capital live much like their ancestors did generations ago.

Homes are built of weaker materials, including straw and corrugated steel, and may have had little stamina against Pam’s raging winds.

Hunkered down, terrified

Even in a concrete house in Port Vila, emergency worker Chloe Morrison from World Vision was terrified of the whirring force. She huddled in a back room with seven other people.

“Seven hours hunkered down and it’s still not safe to go outside,” she said early Saturday. “The winds are still really howling.” It sounded like there was an angry ocean at their door.

Morrison peeked through a seam between the boards covering her windows to catch a sliver of Pam’s destruction.

The trees had not been uprooted, but the cyclone had ripped them bare of leaves and fruit. As a piece of tin twisted off the roof and landed by a window, Morrison felt lucky to be shielded by solid walls.

Cement churches

World Vision’s emergency assessment team planned to view damage after the storm died down.

Their staff hopes preparations will have paid off. They had positioned clean water, food, blankets, tarpaulins, and shelter, hygiene and kitchen kits in key places before the cyclone arrived.

They advised residents to seek shelter in sturdy buildings such as universities and schools.

“The strongest thing they’ve got is cement churches,” said Inga Mepham from CARE International. “Some of them don’t have that. It’s hard to find a structure that you’d think would be able to withstand a Category 5 (storm).”

Next cyclone brewing

Pam is forecast to move southeastward along the western edge of the southern islands of Vanuatu. It isn’t expected to make any additional landfalls before dissipating.

It will continue to weaken as it crosses cooler waters and encounters higher wind shear.

But over Queensland, Australia, a new cyclone, Nathan, is brewing. It is expected to arrive at Vanuatu this week.