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Vanuatu disaster presents challenges for aid groups

Samuel and as his father, Phillip, stand amongst their destroyed home in Port Vila, Vanuatu in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam. (AP Photo/Dave Hunt, Pool)

Aid groups are rushing to respond to the devastation experienced in Vanuatu and its 80 islands in the wake of Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam. The difficult access to parts of the Pacific island nation is concerning as the death toll climbs. Some say it is more challenging than the response to the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan struck in November 2013.

“I was present for the Haiyan response and I would 100 percent tell you that this is a much more difficult logistical problem,” said Save the Children’s Vanuatu Director Tom Skirrow to Agence France-Presse. “The numbers are smaller but the percentage of the population that’s been affected is much bigger.”

Some 90 percent of the buildings in the capital city of Port Vila are destroyed, said President Baldwin Lonsdale. The numbers are assumed to the be the same for the rest of the country. An estimated 24 people died, according to the United Nations. And at least 3,300 people were displaced to 37 evacuation centers.

“This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster,” said Lonsdale to the Associated Press. “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. So it means we will have to start anew again.”


Tens of thousands of people may have been left homeless by the storm. Essential services in the country “are in disarray,” according to U.K.-based aid group ShelterBox. The group is joined by others who say they are trying to assess the situation on the ground and provide immediate assistance. ShelterBox, Oxfam and Save the Children are a few of the groups on the scene and delivering supply kits.

“With extra help arriving on the Australian Government plane today we now have a team of 10 people working on this emergency response, and there is a lot off work to be done,” said Oxfam Country Director in Port Vila, Colin Collet van Rooyen, to the media.


Roughly 70 percent of the 250,000 people who live in Vanuatu live in one of the country’s minor islands. Categorized by the U.N. as one of the world’s “least developed countries,” the majority of people making a living from farming. Access to basic needs, such as clean water, were a challenge before the storm struck. Survey flights carried out by aid groups show the storm caused damage to the majority of the country, said Save’s Skirrow.

The Pacific Ring of Fire Region, where Vanuatu is located, experiences natural disasters like giant storms, earthquakes and rising sea levels. Problems that Lonsdale attributed in some part to climate change.

“Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu. We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year,” he said.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]