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'Half an hour of absolute terror': Dozens feared dead as massive cyclone hits South Pacific

It has left ‘complete devastation’ on the island of Vanuatu.

Image: NOAA via HurricaneZone.net

A TERRIFYING TROPICAL cyclone which smashed into Vanuatu in the South Pacific HAS left “complete devastation”, with fears that dozens may have died in what may be one of the region’s worst weather disasters.

The full extent of the damage is unknown, with limited communications in place after Super Cyclone Pam, a maximum category five storm, slammed directly into the island country late Friday with gusts up to 320 kilometres an hour.

The UN had unconfirmed reports of 44 people killed in one province.

“While it is too early to say for certain, early reports are indicating that this weather disaster could potentially be one of the worst in Pacific history,” UNICEF New Zealand’s executive director Vivien Maidaborn said in a statement.

The sheer force of the storm combined with communities just not set up to withstand it, could have devastating results for thousands across the region.

Reports are emerging that as many as eight people are confirmed dead.

Residents of the capital Port Vila spent the night bunkering down as the terrifying storm raged, waking to find trees had been uprooted, homes destroyed and areas flooded.

“The scene here this morning is complete devastation — houses are destroyed, trees are down, roads are blocked and people are wandering the streets looking for help,” said Save the Children’s Tom Skirrow, speaking from Port Vila.

“We could see some loss of life, potentially serious loss but we don’t know yet,” Sune Gudnitz, who heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Pacific, told AFP.

The feedback is that there appears to be quite widespread devastation. There is debris in the streets and widespread flooding.

UNICEF spokeswoman Alice Clements described the cyclone as “15-30 minutes of absolute terror” for “everybody in this country” as it passed over.

“We have some very unconfirmed reports of casualties from the outer islands as well but we’re waiting to get official confirmation on those, which is very sad news if it’s true,” she told Radio New Zealand.

Added Care International’s Charlie Damon: “Homes have been blown to pieces, and even evacuation shelters, where people had sought refuge, have been flooded and left exposed to Cyclone Pam.

If this is the level of impact in communities where emergency shelters were an option, we are deeply concerned about what has happened in remote communities without them.

Fiji Weather Service meteorologist Neville Koop said the cyclone was weakening as it slowly moved away from Vanuatu, and would pass between Fiji and New Caledonia before brushing the North Island of New Zealand on Monday.

Koop said Pam was not the strongest cyclone for the South Pacific, with Zoe packing bigger winds when it hit Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in 2002. But he said the current storm had gusts of 320 kilometres per hour and sustained winds of 250 kilometres per hour.

- © AFP, 2015additional reporting by Nicky Ryan. Published at 8.19am

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