Dozens feared dead after Cyclone Pam hits Vanuatu

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Media caption,

Unicef's Alice Clements in Vanuatu's capital: "I'm in a very strong hotel, but even this is getting shakes when wind gusts come through"

The death toll from a category five tropical storm that has hit islands in the South Pacific could run into the dozens, the UN's relief agency says.

Cyclone Pam battered Vanuatu with winds of up to 270kph (170mph).

Pictures on social media showed buildings badly damaged and trees and power lines down.

Authorities on the islands had earlier issued a red alert to residents after the cyclone changed direction and began moving towards populated areas.

Communications have been knocked out over a wide area and aid agencies said on Saturday it could be several hours before a clear picture emerges.

Although thousands of people spent the night in emergency shelters, many more were forced to ride out the storm in their own homes.

Pam had already caused major damage on other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.

Tuvalu, a group of nine tiny islands north-east of Vanuatu, has also declared a state of emergency after the cyclone caused flash floods there.

"The immediate concern is for a very high death toll but also an enormous amount of destruction and devastation," Sune Gudnitz, regional director for the UN's Office for the Co-ordination for Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA), told Reuters news agency from nearby Fiji, which is also expecting to be hit by Pam.

There were unconfirmed reports that 44 people had died in Penama province in the north-east of Vanuata, UNOCHA said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Media caption,

Jay Wynne looks at the track of Cyclone Pam

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
A satellite image showing three cyclones near Australia, with Pam to the north-east
Image source, Unicef Pacific
Image caption,
Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, experienced heavy winds and rain on Friday
Image source, Unicef Pacific
Image caption,
Staff members at a local hotel had boarded up windows in anticipation

The Vanuatu Meteorological Services (VMS) said it expected torrential rainfall, flash flooding, landslides and storm surges.

All six provinces are under red alert, meaning people are advised to immediately head to shelter.

Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office spokesperson Mishaen Garae Lulu told Radio New Zealand that the government had lost contact with some parts of the northern provinces.

He said the cyclone was expected to be worse than Cyclone Uma, which killed 50 people in 1987.

Located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital, Port Vila.

On Friday, Alice Clements, an official with the UN children's agency Unicef, told the BBC that the capital had become a ghost town as people took shelter.

"The winds have intensified and the skies have totally clouded over, you can't see the sea or the hills now. Foliage is thrashing around and the wind and rain has been torrential," she said.

"People are anxious; it's been a very long time since Vanuatu has seen a cyclone this big."

The Vanuatu country director for Save the Children, Tom Skirrow, told the AFP news agency that he was concerned about families living in shanty town areas.

"Thousands of families are living in makeshift, flimsy houses which will not withstand the immense winds and rain we're expecting. Families need to urgently evacuate to safe buildings or the results could be catastrophic."

Meanwhile, category three Cyclone Olwyn has hit the coast of Western Australia with wind gusts of up to 195kph (120mph).

People in the state's coastal region were warned to move to higher ground to escape dangerous flooding.

Pacific islands: Key facts

  • Vanuatu: An archipelago of more than 80 islands, with a population estimated at 267,000
  • Kiribati: Population of just over 100,000 across 33 atolls. The capital, Tarawa, is about half way between Hawaii and Australia
  • Solomon Islands: One of the poorest countries in the region that suffered from years of civil unrest. Population of around 600,000
  • Tuvalu: A group of nine tiny, low-lying islands that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Population of just over 10,000
  • Fiji: Popular tourist destination with a population of around 900,000. Made up of more than 800 volcanic and coral islands