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World

Cyclone Created Almost 'Complete' Destruction In Vanuatu

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When Cyclone Pam hit the Pacific Ocean nation of Vanuatu over the weekend, it struck a very vulnerable target. The country is a string of low-lying islands. The waters surged as high as 26 feet as the category five storm reached capital of Port Vila. The scene there is being described as total devastation. An estimated 90 percent of the buildings are damaged.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale, who was a U.N. conference in Japan when the storm hit, called the cyclone a monster, and a major setback for his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BALDWIN LONSDALE: After all the developments that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out. So it means that we will have to start new again.

GONYEA: For now, the focus is on getting immediate relief to the country's roughly 260,000 people. Alice Clements is a spokesperson for UNICEF, who traveled to Vanuatu ahead of the storm to be able to report back on the situation there. She is still there. Welcome, Alice.

ALICE CLEMENTS: Hello.

GONYEA: Give us some sense of what the scene is like on the ground.

CLEMENTS: Look, the more information we get by the day or even by the minute, the more concerned we are. As information is coming through from the outer islands that have been especially badly affected, we are seeing a situation of critical need for people. They have no water, no food, no shelter and no power. And the thing to understand about Vanuatu is that the central island is the home to really the only main hospital here, and it's really struggling to keep up with demand.

GONYEA: And the degree of destruction.

CLEMENTS: Complete, actually. There are some islands that, where the cyclone, the force was not as strong, but we are seeing complete destruction wherever we go.

GONYEA: In a country made up of more than 80 separate islands - some 65, as you said, inhabited - how long will it be before we can even get a true sense of the storm's real impact?

CLEMENTS: We still don't, but the information we're getting through from the islands where we have access is deeply concerning. There's also one island in very close proximity to the capital island in Efate, where Port Vila is, and there's one island in the same province. And the government officials yesterday became quite emotional when they were saying to me we've looked down from the sky and we can see that the seawater has gone a very long way inland during the storm. And we only hope that the community there was sheltering on higher ground.

GONYEA: It's a low-lying collection of islands. As such, Vanuatu has long been at risk for major storms. The country's president has already pointed to climate change and the associated rising seas as a contributing factor. But I'm wondering if you have a sense of how prepared the country was for something like this.

CLEMENTS: Look, one of the things that I've been thinking about this week - you know, this storm was significantly stronger than Hurricane Katrina that decimated New Orleans. And the structures here in this country are significantly weaker. So this storm would have been a devastating tragedy for any country, let alone a country where there just simply isn't adequate structure. So the government here has been doing a great job of preparedness, but, you know, Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. It literally has active volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and cyclones. But this storm, which I experienced myself on Friday night, and it was - I've lived in many insecure environments and countries before and many challenging situations and this was the most scared I've ever been.

GONYEA: Alice, thank you for joining us.

CLEMENTS: Thank you.

GONYEA: Alice Clements is a spokesperson for UNICEF. She spoke to us from Vanuatu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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