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Cyclone Pam: Vanuatu Grapples With Devastation After Deadly Storm

Assessing the full extent of the damage has been difficult, with communications largely severed with the outer islands as phone and power lines are down.
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Thousands of people are in need of food and shelter after a deadly cyclone ripped through the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, aid agencies warned Monday, as relief teams struggled to survey the full extent of the damage.

Cyclone Pam — a Category 5 storm with winds of more than 185 mph — tore through the islands on Friday and Saturday, killing at least six people and leaving what aid workers described as a complete disaster in her wake.

Assessing the full extent of the damage has been difficult, with communications largely severed with the outer islands as phone and power lines were down. Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale said the storm had "wiped out" development and forced the nation to start anew.

"This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu," he told The Associated Press from Japan. "I term it as a monster, a monster."

Ronald Vudui, manager of the Warhorse Saloon Bar and Restaurant in the capital of Port Vila, said the island was "pretty much in chaos at the moment."

"We’re in trouble," he told NBC News. "Some people have lost everything. Their houses have been destroyed, their crops are gone, and they are living in the dark and the wet just trying to recover."

Vudui, a 38-year-old born and bred on the island, said that despite suffering minor damage his was one of the few buildings that had managed to restore power. He even managed to open the bar's doors Monday night, he said, in a bid to nurture community spirit.

"Everyone has been checking on everyone else, that's the mood," he said. "You can't just give up. We're a small community but a strong one."

Despite the damage wrought upon Port Vila, Vudui's real concern was for Vanuatu's outer islands. "We have concrete walls here; they do not," he explained.

UNICEF said that its staffer Alice Clements was in the capital of Port Vila when the storm hit and said "it felt like the world was coming to an end."

The organization warned that countless homes and educational centers have been destroyed, saying that around 60,000 children have been affected and are in urgent need of assistance.

"We are particularly concerned about their health, nutrition, safety, schooling and recovery," Isabelle Austin, Unicef Pacific deputy representative, said in a statement noting that access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities has been disrupted in many places.

Tourist Martin Trainor, 53, echoed those concerns as he spoke to NBC News from a resort near the capital.

"The situation here has already been quite a strain," the Melbourne local said, describing how "the whole building was rocking and shaking and the wind was howling outside" when the storm hit.

Australian tourist Brett Pearse spent the night the storm hit sheltered in a Holiday Inn ballroom with around 200 other people, after he and his family were evacuated from their beachfront resort to just outside the capital.

"It was like a freight train going past for about four or five hours," said the 41-year-old, who works as a warehouse manager in Brisbane. "You could hear doors getting blown off, tiles blowing off the roof, and trees snapping — it was really horrendous."

The government declared a state of emergency for Shefa Province and said 1.5 percent of the national budget would immediately be allocated for the disaster response.

"We will prepare for the worst"

Australia's Air Force said it had sent two planes to help with surveillance and reconnaissance. New Zealand also was assisting with airlift and aerial damage assessments.

The Red Cross said that thousands of people are in need of food, shelter and water — and that it will "take some time" before the full extent of the damage is understood.

"Homes have been lost, crops are destroyed. The damage is enormous, and people need our help," Aurelia Balpe, from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said. "We may not know everything now, but we will prepare for the worst."

While the Torres Islands were spared the greatest devastation, the southern island of Tanna was "simply flattened," according to the Red Cross' Peter Lawther.

"Schools and concrete homes across Tanna are destroyed," he said in a statement.

Image: A local resident kneels near debris on a street near damaged homes in Port Vila
A local resident kneels near debris on a street near damaged homes in Port Vila, the capital city of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu March 15, 2015.Kris Paras / Reuters