SENDAI, Japan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments meeting in Japan to adopt a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters should heed the devastation caused by a fierce cyclone in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu and take practical action, the country’s president said.
“The reality of what is happening now is in Vanuatu,” President Baldwin Lonsdale told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on Sunday in the northeastern Japanese city of Sendai, where the U.N. conference is taking place.
“We don’t have to depend on the theory. We have to be very practical on what is happening, not only in Vanuatu but around the world.”
Vanuatu - a sprawling cluster of 83 islands and 260,000 people, 2,000 km (1,250 miles) northeast of the Australian city of Brisbane - is among the world’s poorest countries and is highly vulnerable to natural hazards, including earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and rising sea levels.
Shadrack Rubart Welegtabit, the director of Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office who is accompanying the president on his Japan trip, said his country had not been hit by a category 5 storm like Cyclone Pam before. The storm packed winds of more than 300 kph (185 mph) at its height over the weekend.
The president said he feared the impact from the tropical cyclone would be “the very, very, very worst” in isolated outer islands but damage was still being assessed. He hoped the number of casualties would be “minor”, he added.
Eight deaths have been confirmed so far, with more than 30 people injured, although those figures are expected to rise. Most homes have been damaged or destroyed in the capital, Port Vila, with people seeking temporary shelter where they can, the president said.
Communications are completely down outside of the capital, and could take weeks to restore, Welegtabit said.
Government ministers in Vanuatu have declared a state of emergency. Aid agencies, including the United Nations, are swinging into action after the president appealed for international help in Sendai on Saturday.
The country’s climate change minister, James Bule, said people in Vanuatu were aware of what to do when warned about the cyclone because they are used to dealing with storms, albeit of a lower strength. The government has people deployed across the archipelago to make sure communities prepare, he added.
Vanuatu Red Cross Society President Hannington Alatoa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Sendai that the humanitarian agency’s work to educate people to protect themselves from disaster risks over the past 15 years would have helped reduce casualties.
The Red Cross - which is considering launching an international appeal for the disaster - has worked with the Vanuatu government to set up a disaster management structure, and trained local people to secure their houses and stock up on food and water, Alatoa added.
“Easily (deaths) would have been doubled if there was no preparedness, but we have been doing this and it’s paying off,” he said.
Nonetheless the poorest people living in tin shacks in towns would have lost the roofs of their flimsy homes. “Where the wind is too strong, there is no assurance,” Alatoa said.
The Red Cross said on Sunday it had mobilized 200 volunteers who were visiting 26 evacuation centers in Port Vila to help the authorities with registration and aid distribution, and to carry out assessments in all affected areas.
According to the head of the Vanuatu disaster management office, the most urgent aid needs include shelter materials such as tarpaulins, water purification tablets, kitchen utensils, bedding and clothes.
The president and his team in Sendai are trying to get back to Vanuatu as soon as they can, but they said being in Sendai had made it easier for them to request help from other governments, the United Nations and international organizations.
When they left for Japan on March 10, they knew a storm was coming, but at that stage the winds had not intensified to cyclone strength, they said.
“We did not realize how bad it was going to be,” the president said.
(Story corrects confirmed death toll at 8, not 10)
Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering