WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Vanuatu's president said Monday that the cyclone that hammered the tiny South Pacific archipelago over the weekend was a "monster" that has destroyed or damaged 90 percent of the buildings in the capital and has forced the nation to start anew.
Looking weary and red-eyed, Baldwin Lonsdale said in an interview with The Associated Press that the latest information he has is that six people are confirmed dead and 30 injured from Cyclone Pam. Lonsdale was interviewed in Sendai, in northeastern Japan, where he had been attending a disaster conference when the cyclone struck.
He appealed for international aid for the place he calls "paradise."
"This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster, a monster," he said. "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."
The president said because of the break in communications, even he could not reach his family. "We do not know if our families are safe or not. As the leader of the nation, my whole heart is for the people, the nation," he said.
Lonsdale and other top Vanuatu government officials were preparing to return home later Monday from Sendai.
Officials in Vanuatu had still not made contact with outlying islands and were struggling to determine the scale of devastation from the cyclone, which tore through early Saturday, packing winds of 270 kilometers (168 miles) per hour.
Paolo Malatu, coordinator for the National Disaster Management Office, said officials had dispatched every plane and helicopter they could to fly over the hard-hit outer islands.
"The damage to homes and infrastructure is severe," Malatu said. "The priority at the moment is to get people water, food and shelter."
He said bridges were down outside the capital, Port Vila, making travel by vehicle impossible even around the main island of Efate.
New Zealand radio journalist Frances Cook and her husband traveled to Vanuatu for their honeymoon two days before the cyclone struck. She said they knew a storm was coming but figured from the forecasts it wouldn't be too bad.
"It's been exciting," she joked.
Instead of zip-lining through the jungle and looking at active volcanoes as planned, she has instead been reporting back home on the devastation. She said a lot of stranded tourists are desperate to leave and some are afraid for their security.
"It's a glorious place and the people are so lovely," she said. "It's quite upsetting to see this happen."
The airport in Port Vila has reopened, allowing some aid and relief flights to reach the country. Lonsdale said a wide range of items were needed, from tarpaulins and water containers to medical supplies and construction tools.
Georgina Roberts, New Zealand's High Commissioner to Vanuatu, said two defense force planes would arrive Monday to retrieve about 100 stranded New Zealand tourists. Some commercial flights have resumed as well, although services are limited.
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 people spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
Hannington Alatoa, head of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, said flyovers by New Zealand and Australian relief teams showed much of the country had been "flattened." At least half of the population, or about 130,000 people, has been affected, Alatoa said in Sendai.
"No trees, no foliage, no iron structures standing on the western part of Tanna (island)," Alatoa said. "People are in great need of water."
Alatoa said he has been unable to contact his family. "I'm praying that they are able to cope with the situation they have on the ground right now."
UNICEF estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.
The small island nation, located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with the island's coastal areas being washed away, forcing resettlement to higher ground and smaller yields on traditional crops.
Scientists say it's impossible to attribute single weather events like Cyclone Pam to climate change.
"Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu," President Lonsdale said. "We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year."
The cyclone has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Some homes were evacuated in New Zealand on Monday to escape flooding as the weakening storm moved past the North Island's East Cape region.
Kurtenbach reported from Sendai, Japan. Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.