PORT VILA (Reuters) - Villagers in Vanuatu buried food and fresh water as one of the strongest storms on record bore down on them, fleeing to churches, schools and even coconut drying kilns as 300 kph winds and massive seas tore their flimsy houses to the ground.
Despite reports of utter devastation six days after Cyclone Pam pummeled the impoverished South Pacific island nation, Vanuatu appears to be providing something of a lesson in how to survive a category 5 storm.
The United Nations says the official death toll is 11 and Prime Minister Joe Natuman told Reuters it would not rise significantly.
"The important thing is that the people survived," he said in an interview outside his office overlooking the hard-hit capital of Port Vila. "If the people survived, we can rebuild."
Officials had feared a spike in deaths once news came in from outer islands of the scattered archipelago and the low figure amazed aid workers and those who lived through the storm.
"It's absolutely unbelievable the death toll is so low," said Richard Barnes, 43, a property valuer from New Zealand who has lived near the capital Port Vila, on Efate island for seven years.
Two days ago, a helicopter flight over the north of Efate revealed scenes of total devastation with at least one coastal village destroyed and no sign of life.
When visited a day later, dozens of villagers were back rebuilding with what materials they could find and reporting only one injury, said Barnes, who was on Cayman Island in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan hit.
"Everyone is just getting on with it, which was different from Cayman where everyone just sat around waiting for something to be done," Barnes said.
Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, disaster co-ordinator for the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs office said he was impressed by the country's ability to deal with the storm.
"In very few places that I have worked have I seen such a resilient population," Rhodes Stampa, who has worked in major disaster sites including the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, told Reuters in Port Vila.
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.
Ben Hemingway, a regional adviser for USAid, said aid organizations like his had been working with the Vanuatu government for years on disaster mitigation.
"It's a testament to the investment the international community has made. If you look at the days before the storm, the message got out on the power of the storm and what to do to protect yourself. People did heed those warnings."
Many villages are built further back from the shore to avoid storm surges and tsunamis, and most have at least one sturdy building to retreat to. Even the spreading roots of banyan trees that have survived centuries of storms are also sometimes used as shelter if houses are destroyed.
"Hurricanes or cyclones are not a new thing, since when people started living in these islands maybe about 5,000 years ago this type of event occurs every year," said Natuman.
"I think also we are now more organized in terms of our disaster management."
Some villagers survived Pam by sheltering in a kiln used to dry coconuts and make copra, one aid official said.
People in the capital Port Vila prepared by weighing down corrugated tin roofs with cinder blocks, sandbags or logs. On small isolated islands, stock piles of coconuts, fruit and water were buried to enable villagers to survive several days.
Latrines are dug ahead of storms and lined with palm fronds to prevent contamination of water supplies.
Aid workers are now trying to get aid to isolated islands where airstrips, ports and communications are extensively damaged. Two helicopters were onboard a French frigate leaving nearby New Caledonia on Thursday and Australia and New Zealand were also sending vessels, Natuman said.
Writing and additional reporting by Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Editing by Rachel Armstrong