PORT VILA (Reuters) - International aid agencies ramped up appeals for cyclone-hit Vanuatu on Wednesday, warning that the powerful storm which affected more than two-thirds of the South Pacific island nation had wiped out crops and destroyed fishing fleets, raising the risk of hunger and disease.
Residents of the southern island of Tanna said food and basic supplies were running low while relief workers were still battling to reach many islands pummeled by Cyclone Pam’s gusts of more than 300 kph (185 mph) on Friday and Saturday.
The United Nations said the official death toll was 11, but many officials anticipate that number will rise once they are able to more thoroughly inspect the outer islands of the scattered archipelago.
Sweden said on Tuesday a Swedish man aged around 80 who had emigrated was among the dead.
“We are extremely concerned for the safety and well-being of many communities affected by the cyclone, particularly in the more remote regions of the country that are only accessible by boat,” said Aurélia Balpe, regional head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“For a small nation like Vanuatu this is a huge disaster that requires an international response.”
Sune Gudnitz, Pacific head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said food supplies were a concern.
“The challenge of getting things out, whether it’s people or goods, remains. We want to avoid creating a bottleneck in Port Vila so we very quickly need to work out a plan for getting things out,” Gudnitz said, referring to the Vanuatu capital.
The U.N.’s World Food Programme said it was working with aid agencies on the ground to help distribute food and other aid after banana, coconut and other crops were destroyed, livestock was killed and boats and fishing canoes wrecked.
The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the government was kicking off a measles prevention campaign because of low immunization rates.
Tourism, which accounts for about 40 percent of Vanuatu’s economy, has also been badly affected, with Port Vila closed to cruise liners indefinitely.
With communications cut off and reconnaissance flights revealing destroyed houses, shredded forests and damaged buildings, aid agencies had been particularly worried about Tanna, which bore the full force of the storm.
On Tuesday, a Reuters reporter on the island of 29,000 people, about 200 km (125 miles) south of the capital, said that while damage was extensive, it appeared most of the population had survived by sheltering in schools, churches and other sturdy buildings.
“People sheltered in school buildings. We were helping one another,” Ropate Vuso, 67, told Reuters in Tanna township.
“We are running short of food, water, shelter and electricity. We have no communications, we are still waiting for the people from parliament, the chief and the president, but still nobody is coming.”
There were reports of five deaths in and around the main town of Tanna.
Oxfam’s Vanuatu country manager, Colin Collett van Rooyen, said an assessment flight over the island of Erromango, north of Tanna and with a population of around 2,000, had revealed devastation.
“What we have seen is damage in some villages, at the upper range, of 70, 80, 90 percent, one village in particular 100 percent,” he said.
Aircraft flying over other outlying islands had seen large white “Hs” marked on the ground, or residents trying to signal for help with mirrors, he added.
Formerly known as the New Hebrides, Vanuatu, one of the world’s poorest nations, is a sprawling cluster of more than 80 islands and 260,000 people, 2,000 km (1,250 miles) northeast of the Australian city of Brisbane.
Perched on the geologically active “Ring of Fire”, it suffers from frequent earthquakes and tsunamis and has several active volcanoes, in addition to threats from storms and rising sea levels.
Writing and additional reporting by Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Editing by Dean Yates