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World

Vanuatu Still Recovering After Devastating Cyclone Hits

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 the capital of Port Vila. The scene there is being described as total devastation. An estimated 90 percent of the building are damaged.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale, who was at 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 wipe out. So it means that we'll have to start anew again.

GONYEA: For now, the focus is on getting immediate relief to the country's 260,000 people. Joining us from New York is Yasmin Haque, who is UNICEF's deputy director of emergency programs. Welcome.

YASMIN HAQUE: Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: What are you hearing from your people on the ground? Can you paint us a picture?

HAQUE: The picture is a terrifying one. Our colleague Alice went from our office in Suva ahead of the cyclone just so that we would be able to report back on what's happening. She described it as - you know, it was like a bomb going off. She thought it was the end of the world while she took shelter under a basin in her hotel room as the room was being damaged. Imagine winds of 185 miles an hour howling on for over seven hours we are told. And think of how terrified the children must have been. We estimate there are about 60,000 children in Vanuatu, and for them, those seven hours would have been terrible.

GONYEA: Neighboring countries have pledged aid. Australia and New Zealand - nearly 4 million and 2 million dollars, respectively. What do the people of Vanuatu need the most now?

HAQUE: Right now we have attention but we do need funding to support the immediate relief efforts. There's still some islands where there has not been any access. Radio towers, which were the main way of communicating with the smaller, outlying islands have been disrupted. The only information that we have is what is coming back from some of the aerial surveillance.

GONYEA: Again, it's a country of 80 separate islands. How long before we get a true idea of the storm's impact?

HAQUE: Indeed, it is going to take a few days before we really understand the scale of what has affected Vanuatu.

GONYEA: As a low-lying collection of islands, Vanuatu has long been at risk for major storms, and the country's president has already pointed to climate change and the associated rising seas as what he sees as a contributing factor. How prepared was the country for something like this storm?

HAQUE: You can be prepared for storms to a certain extent, but are you always going to be prepared for a level-five cyclone? And that's where the whole issue of how development is so important - that the infrastructure is strong enough, the communication network that is set up is able to withstand a level-five cyclone. In terms of UNICEF's preparedness itself, we had pre-positioned on the ground supplies to meet the immediate needs of about 5,000 people should there be a storm, as it's something that we face every year in the Pacific islands.

GONYEA: Yasmin Haque, thank you for joining us.

HAQUE: Thank you for your interest.

GONYEA: Yasmin Haque is UNICEF's deputy director of emergency programs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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