By NICK PERRY and ELAINE KURTENBACH
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Vanuatu’s president said the cyclone that hammered the tiny South Pacific archipelago was a “monster” that has destroyed or damaged 90 percent of the buildings in the capital Port Vila and has forced the nation to start anew.
Looking weary and red-eyed, Baldwin Lonsdale said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press that the latest information he has is that six people are confirmed dead and 30 injured from Cyclone Pam. He appealed for international aid for a place he calls “paradise.”
“This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster, a monster,” he said. “It’s a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu. After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out.”
Lonsdale and other top government officials were preparing to return home later Monday from Sendai, in northeastern Japan, where they had been attending a disaster conference.
The president said because of the break in communications, even he could not reach his family. “We do not know if our families are safe or not. As the leader of the nation, my whole heart is for the people, the nation.”
Officials in Vanuatu had still not made contact with outlying islands and were struggling to determine the scale of devastation from the cyclone, which tore through early Saturday, packing winds of 270 kilometers (168 miles) per hour.
Paolo Malatu, coordinator for the National Disaster Management Office, said two people had been confirmed dead in the capital, Port Vila, and two more on the southern island of Tanna. He said officials had dispatched every plane and helicopter they could Monday to fly over the hard-hit outer islands.
With power lines and phone circuits down, officials have no way of knowing the scope of the disaster there.
“The damage to homes and infrastructure is severe,” Malatu said. “The priority at the moment is to get people water, food and shelter.”
He said there was major damage to many government buildings, and bridges were down outside the capital, making travel by vehicle impossible even around the main island of Efate.
The airport in Port Vila has reopened, allowing some aid and relief flights to reach the country. Lonsdale appealed for more help.
“Tarpaulins, water containers, medical needs, gathering tools, construction tools, all these are very important right now,” he said.
Georgina Roberts, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Vanuatu, said two defense force planes would arrive Monday to retrieve about 100 stranded New Zealand tourists.
Some commercial flights have resumed as well, although services are limited.
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 people spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
“People are really upset and it’s really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven’t received a really big cyclone like this one,” said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu coordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350. “Most people right now, they are really homeless.”
Hannington Alatoa, head of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, said flyovers by New Zealand and Australian relief teams showed much of the country had been “flattened.” At least half of the population, or about 130,000 people, has been affected, Alatoa said in Sendai.
“No trees, no foliage, no iron structures standing on the western part of Tanna,” Alatoa said. “Trees blocked the roads…. People are in great need of water.”
Alatoa said he has been unable to contact his family.
“I tried yesterday to call them from my hotel room, but I didn’t get through,” he said. “It’s difficult. I’m praying that they are able to cope with the situation they have on the ground right now.”
Many people who have ventured out from 23 emergency shelters around Port Vila have found their homes damaged or blown away altogether, said Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer. Teetering trees and downed power lines have made parts of the capital hazardous.
She said communications have been so problematic that her aid group has not yet been able to account for many of its own 76 staff members on the islands.
For anybody who was not in a secure shelter during the cyclone “it would have been a very, very tough time for them,” she said.
UNICEF estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.
The small island nation, located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with the island’s coastal areas being washed away, forcing resettlement to higher ground and smaller yields on traditional crops.
Scientists say it’s impossible to attribute single weather events like Cyclone Pam to climate change.
The cyclone has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Some homes were evacuated in New Zealand on Monday to escape flooding as the weakening storm moved past the North Island’s East Cape region.
Kurtenbach reported from Sendai, Japan. Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.
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