PORT VILA (Reuters) - The death toll from the devastating storm that pummeled Vanuatu last weekend will not rise significantly, the prime minister of the South Pacific island nation said on Thursday.
“The important thing is that the people survived,” Prime Minister Joe Natuman told Reuters in an interview in the capital Port Vila. “If the people survived, we can rebuild.”
Cyclone Pam roared across the island chain last Friday and Saturday, bringing winds of up to 300 kph (185 mph), torrential rain and massive storm surges. But almost a week later, the officially reported death toll is still a remarkably low 11 people.
“It’s not going to rise dramatically,” the prime minister’s private secretary Bakoa Kaltongga said of the toll.
With widespread destruction in Port Vila and across nearby islands, relief workers had feared the number of dead could rise significantly once they were able to more thoroughly inspect the outer islands of the scattered archipelago.
Aid workers and residents described how people 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 winds and massive seas ripped their flimsy houses to the ground.
Speaking from outside his office on a hill overlooking the hard-hit capital, Natuman said the storm was the strongest in Vanuatu’s history.
“This one, Cyclone Pam, the whole group was affected right from the north down to the south,” he said.
“Hurricanes or cyclones are not a new thing, since when people started living in these islands maybe about 5000 years, ago this type of event occurs every year. We have learned to adapt to the situation”.
However, the severity of storms appears to be increasing and global action is needed to combat the effects of climate change thought to contribute to more powerful cyclones, he said.
“Maybe this is something to do with the climate change matter and I hope that the world will come together at COP21 in Paris and make some concrete decisions on the way forward,” he said, referring to the United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled for later this year in France.
“As far as we are concerned we need to sign a more legally comprehensive and legally binding document to lessen the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere… I hope the whole world can take an example - Vanuatu has been damaged by a severe category 5 storm and we should do something to prevent this happening.”
Reporting by Stephen Coates; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Rachel Armstrong