PORT VILA, Vanuatu – It has been a week since Cyclone Pam ravaged the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, killing at least 13 people and leaving thousands homeless, hungry and desperate for help.
For days, Associated Press reporters have been on the ground and in the air covering the disaster's impact across the islands, where communications remain patchy to nonexistent and entire villages have been flattened. Here is a look at what they've seen as the country struggles to recover from the disaster.
In a world that has become reliant on instant access to information at any time, it's hard to overstate the impact on people when they lose access to the Internet and cellphone networks. While intermittent service has been restored in the capital, Port Vila, outside the city there is almost no way to make or receive phone calls. There are many islands still cut off from the outside world, with no ability to communicate. People living on hard-hit Tanna and many of the other islands may have survived the cyclone, but they have no way of knowing how their relatives or friends are faring elsewhere. People are desperate for information and will ask friends or even complete strangers to pass on messages or make a phone call for them.
Much of the focus has been on the problems faced by Port Vila and Tanna Island. There is some logic behind this; Port Vila is the capital and most populous area in Vanuatu, while the southern island of Tanna suffered particularly severe damage. But with runways still out of operation on some of the northern islands in the archipelago, there has been much less access to those areas and hence less media coverage. On Friday, The Associated Press joined an aerial reconnaissance by New Zealand's defense force of Epi, Emae and Tongoa islands to the north, which are home to several thousand people. There was evidence of extensive destruction of buildings on all the islands, with Tongoa in particular seeming to fare the worst. Tongoa and Emae have reported up to 90 percent of buildings were damaged. All three islands were denuded of much of their foliage.
The cyclone has knocked down fruit-bearing trees and destroyed crops across the country. The effect has been felt not only by the large numbers of subsistence farmers who rely on the crops to survive, but also in the markets and hotels in the capital. Restaurants catering to foreign tourists that would usually offer a bounty of tropical fruits have been forced to offer simple set menus. Tanna Island has estimated its food supplies will only last until Wednesday. The widespread crop damage has prompted Vanuatu's government to include seed packs for replanting in its aid distributions.
Aid agencies, many of which were active in Vanuatu before the cyclone, have arrived in sometimes overwhelming numbers. The agencies do much-needed work by getting supplies to those affected by the cyclone. Yet the sheer logistics of what they are doing are often daunting. Lines of aid workers at the airport snap up handfuls of cellphone SIM cards, others form lines at the bank and book all the rental cars. The government has been trying to get a handle on all the aid coming in and come up with a distribution plan, an approach that has led some critics to accuse officials of dragging their feet. It's not only aid workers — there are also teams of military personnel from Australia and New Zealand, a French frigate, and even a super yacht donated by a private company due to arrive Saturday.
FROM GREEN TO BROWN
Cyclone Pam transformed much of Vanuatu from a tropical green to a dirty brown overnight, as coconut trees were stripped of their foliage and snapped like matchsticks and even some mighty banyan trees were toppled. There are also fires all over the island, as people burn off piles of branches and debris. From the air, it gives an apocalyptic appearance to the islands. But this, at least, should only last a matter of months as green shoots rise again.