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After 'Monster' Storm Hits Vanuatu, Leader Pleads For Aid

Resident Uwen Garae stands in his home damaged by Cyclone Pam in Port Vila, the capital city of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Monday. The storm destroyed homes, smashed boats and washed away roads and bridges as it struck late on Friday and into Saturday.

Officials in Vanuatu are still assessing damage from what President Baldwin Lonsdale says was "a monster" — Cyclone Pam, a strong storm that hit the small nation in the South Pacific with winds that damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the buildings in the capital, Lonsdale says.

"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."

At least eight deaths have been blamed on the cyclone; a full tally of casualties and damage may still be days away. Some 33,000 of Vanuatu's more than 260,000 people live on outer islands, many of which were cut off from communication by the storm.

"The scale of humanitarian need will be enormous and the proud people of Vanuatu are going to need a lot of help to rebuild their homes and their lives," Oxfam Country Director Colin Collet van Rooyen says. "Entire communities have been blown away."

Neither Lonsdale nor the leader of Vanuatu's disaster management agency were in their country when the cyclone hit late Friday and early Saturday; they were attending a global conference on disaster risk reduction in Japan. As Reuters reports, the group left for Japan last Tuesday, before Pam veered toward their nation's chain of more than 80 islands.

"We don't know what happened to our families," Lonsdale said today. "There is a breakdown of communication so that 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 whole people of the nation."

The Vanuatu delegation has used its presence in Japan to plead for help from neighboring nations and relief agencies. Rapid-response teams from Australia, New Zealand and the U.N. were sent to Vanuatu over the weekend.

Vanuatu is commonly ranked as one of the world's most vulnerable places for natural disasters to occur. It faces risks that include earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, and flooding.

As we reported Saturday, "Most of Vanuatu's structures are built of lightweight material such as bamboo and designed to withstand earthquakes, but not cyclones."

The BBC reports: "The air here is very thick with smoke because the cleanup has already begun — the debris is being chopped down, collected and burned. There is a sense here that people will rebuild but it only takes a brief moment in the capital to realize that this rebuilding effort will take many months if not years."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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