The South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is reeling from the effects of Tropical Cyclone Pam, which hit the country late last week. The storm was a category five and was one of the strongest ever recorded. Its winds were sustained at 165 mph, with gusts exceeding 200 mph.
Every one of the country’s islands took a hit, and all 270,000 islanders have been severely impacted. The capital city of Port Vila has been crippled with 90 percent of its buildings sustaining damage. 15,000 of the city’s 40,000 residents are now homeless. But Port Vila was actually spared the worst of the storm.
The hardest hit islands are also some of the most remote and difficult to reach. The worst devastation has occurred in the south. More than 90 percent of all buildings have been completely destroyed on some of these islands. It has taken nearly a week to make contact with them and aid has yet to arrive. One remote island has reported that a lack fresh water is forcing residents to drink salt water.
NGOs say the logistics of delivering aid to Vanuatu are very difficult because so much of the country is remote and difficult to reach. Some are calling it the most difficult operation they have ever faced. Since most of the infrastructure has been destroyed, many runways are unusable and this has put many islands out of reach for airplanes delivering aid.
It’s currently peak season for tropical cyclones in the South Pacific and Vanuatu is certainly no stranger to them, nor is it unfamiliar with natural disasters. The country has constantly been ranked as one of the most disaster prone in the world. The United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security listed it number one in its world risk report of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, ahead of the Philippines and Tonga.
The reason it scores so high is due to its natural setting that is particularly prone to disasters and the fact that it is severely underdeveloped. Vanuatu is considered one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. Its government is inefficient and known for corruption. 70 percent of the population lives in remote areas and has limited access to basic services or utilities.
The government has few resources of its own to cope with the disaster and much of what it did have was destroyed by the storm. The government has not been able to provide much assistance outside the capital and the international community has had to take charge of the relief effort.
Two-thirds of the population rely on agriculture to earn a living, but nearly all of the country’s crops have been destroyed by the storm. This means a large number of people are now in need of food assistance and have lost their livelihood. Most buildings are built of flimsy material and are not designed to cope with strong winds. Aid groups estimate that up to 150,000 people, more than half the population, are likely homeless.
A good early warning system and a good network of storm shelters have kept the death toll remarkably low. Only 11 deaths have been confirmed, but many more are missing and unofficial reports from some islands report over 40 deaths. The death toll is likely to rise as aid groups struggle to reach islands facing hunger and disease in the storm’s aftermath. Still, many consider it a miracle that the death toll is not in the thousands.
– Matt Lesso