13 March 2015
Last updated at 20:36
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) on Friday.
Authorities on the islands had earlier issued a red alert to residents after the cyclone changed direction and began moving towards populated areas.
It has 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 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, the UNOCHA said in a statement on Friday, according to Reuters.
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.
Cyclone Pam destroyed homes and flooded crop areas in Kiribati and the Solomon Islands before moving on to Vanuatu and Tuvalu. At least 3,000 households were said to have been affected.
The Vanuatu Meteorological Services (VMS) said it expected torrential rainfall, flash flooding, landslides and storm surges.
A satellite image showing three cyclones near Australia, with Pam to the north-east
Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, experienced heavy winds and rain on Friday
Staff members at a local hotel had boarded up windows in anticipation
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.
Earlier 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.”
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
Are you in the region and preparing for Cyclone Pam? You can email your experiences to [email protected].
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