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Staff missing, damage unknown as aid agencies respond to Cyclone Pam

Photo:  REUTERS/UNICEF PACIFIC

Photo: REUTERS/UNICEF PACIFIC

PORT VILA, Vanuatu, March 15, 2015 – One day after Cyclone Pam slammed into the Pacific islands of Vanuatu, the full extent of the damage remains unknown. However it is believed that the cyclone may have impacted as much as 50 percent of the country. Early reports indicate that homes are damaged or destroyed, phone lines are unreliable and the airport remains closed to commercial flights.

World Vision has only been able to contact 45* of its 80 staff on the island, and the agency is working as quickly as possible to reach the rest of its team on the ground. The organization’s office was also damaged by the storm, and all operations are currently being run out of the country director’s home. The Category 5 storm also hit a number of remote islands as it moved across the eastern part of the Solomon Islands. This video from World Vision shows the storm hitting the island on Friday, March 14, 2015.

“We’ve heard that whole villages have been blown away,” said Chloe Morrison, World Vision’s Emergency Communications Officer in Vanuatu. “The homes have been completely flattened. They’re just piles of timber, just totally decimated. The wind was so strong it just below away huge chunks of debris.”

Contact between Port Vila and other islands has not been possible yet. Penama Province was directly in the path of the storm, and the cyclone stayed over Tafea Province for approximately four hours on Friday so the organization is extremely concerned about staff and communities in those areas.

Most families on Vanuatu live in simple, thatched-roof homes that are very vulnerable to severe weather. Even for those who safely evacuated to storm shelters, they will likely return to homes that are damaged or destroyed, and crops that are washed away. Cyclone Pam was one of the worst storms the island has ever seen.

“People have been shocked by how devastating and how terrifying it was,” said Morrison. “Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world, and yet this still shocked them. But there was also relief. They’ve lost everything – their home and everything in it – but they’re just relieved they’re ok.”

World Vision’s team spent Saturday driving throughout the communities in Port Vila, assessing the situation in the capital city but communications and logistics remain difficult. Additional information is expected to continue to come in as the team is able to reach more remote parts of the country.

“Given that we haven’t been able to communicate with the other islands and what I’ve seen in terms of damage to houses in Port Vila, it’s an unfortunate reality that the death toll may rise,” added Morrison. “There’s a massive search and rescue that will be need to be underway.”

World Vision pre-positioned relief goods in Port Vila, Santo Island and Tanna Island. Items include tarps, tools for repairs, water containers, mosquito nets, hygiene kits, baby kits and kitchen sets. Early warnings throughout the week urged communities to evacuate to local storm shelters, and in preparation for cyclone season, many communities also participated in disaster-preparedness workshops last year with World Vision. The workshops taught communities how to map natural disasters, plan evacuation routes and learn valuable search and rescue skills.

World Vision has been working in Vanuatu since 1981 and currently has projects across six provinces.

How to Help

  • Make a one-time donation to the Cyclone Pam Relief Fund. A gift will help provide much-needed aid for children and families impacted by Cyclone Pam, including water, essential food items, blankets, tarps and more.

Press release originally posted on the World Vision website.
* Number updated Monday morning at 9:00 AM PT.

** As of March 23, all 80 World Vision staff are safe and accounted for in Vanuatu. Thank you for your prayers!

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