Vanuatu president, heading home from Japan disaster conference, rues devastation from cyclone

Baldwin Lonsdale, president of Vanuatu, the Pacific island nation devastated by a powerful tropical storm last week, was attending a disaster conference in the Japanese city of Sendai when the cyclone struck. So far, he and his delegation have received information only from Vanuatu's main city of Port Vila. Following are excerpts from an interview with The Associated Press.

Q: What is the situation in Vanuatu now?

A: "Cyclone Pam has devastated Port Vila. More than 90 percent of the buildings and houses in Port Vila have been destroyed or damaged. The state of emergency that has been issued is only for Port Vila. Once we receive an update on the extent of the damage in the provinces then another state of emergency will be issued for the outer islands."

Q: Is there an update on casualties and damage?

A: "More than 1,000 people have been evacuated to evacuation centers and will be returning to their homes sometime later today, if their homes still stand. That's in Port Vila alone. Confirmed dead in Port Vila is six and more than 30 injuries. I do believe the number of casualties will not be high.

Q: Is there anything more that could have been done to prepare for the storm?

A: "This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster, a monster. 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. So it means we will have to start anew again."

Q: What are the urgent needs for Vanuatu?

A: "The first priority is the humanitarian needs. People have lost many of their properties. Clothing, eating utensils, bathing . most of the necessary items of the households, all this has been destroyed and damaged. I really request for humanitarian needs and assistance at this stage. Tarpaulins, water containers, medical needs, gathering tools, construction tools all these are very important right now."

Q: Vanuatu is vulnerable to many disaster risks, including earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme weather and sea level rises due to climate change. Do you see the impact of climate change yourself?

A: "Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu. We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year."

Q: How are you feeling as you prepare to head back home?

A: "Very emotional. My heart is for the people. Everyone has that same feeling. We don't know what has happened to our families. Because there is a breakdown in communications we cannot reach our families. 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."