Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

Savage aftermath: 'People were starting to hack their way out of their houses'

Stress levels recede as aid and supplies pour into storm-ravaged islands

A Unicef staff member vaccinates a child against measles in Port Vila. Photo / Getty Images
A Unicef staff member vaccinates a child against measles in Port Vila. Photo / Getty Images

From her office high above Vila Bay, Georgina Roberts looks across the water at a landscape forever changed.

"Before, I could never see across to those houses on the other side," Roberts, New Zealand's High Commissioner in Vanuatu, says.

"It was all lush and green. And now, well, anyone who has been to Vanuatu, if they came now they would see a stark difference."

And it's not only the sights that are unfamiliar to residents here.

"On Saturday morning it was very eerie to wake up -- or not exactly wake up because we hardly slept. It wasn't birdsong we were hearing it was chainsaws and machetes as people were starting to hack their way out of their houses."

Roberts is overseeing the New Zealand response to Cyclone Pam, which struck last weekend.

The death toll from the "monster storm" has risen to 16 and aid agencies have begun a measles vaccination campaign to contain the virus.

People and supplies and donations have poured in since the savage winds cut through the nation's scattered islands, and the commission has been coping with emotional needs as well.

"It was only on Tuesday that we had confirmation that all of our staff were okay," she said. "Staff have lost homes. One of our staff has lost close family. And you know, while we are here these are our work colleagues, our family, and they are very badly hurt."

However, things are beginning to improve. Locals have worked tirelessly to clear roads of debris, including fallen trees and iron.

On Friday aid was being distributed to the outer islands, and the government seemed to have a better idea of its plans. Yesterday was quiet, with still the sound of chainsaws and ever-present smell of smoke, but fewer cars, people and stress as many journalists and aid workers who flooded the country began to leave on resumed commercial flights.

Those arriving now are in it longer term. A New Zealand Navy ship will arrive tomorrow. Defence staff have extended their hotel bookings until next month. Garden City Helicopters from Christchurch has sent two extra choppers with pilots and crew to help restore communications.

Yesterday they were flying to islands in the south, and to Pentecost in the northeast.

Animal experts have also begun to arrive. World Animal Protection spokesman Scott Cantin said it had been treating animals on Vila with the help of local vets and would move to the other islands this week.

"There is a rising risk of lack of food sources for livestock in the coming days due to the damaged local sources of feed," he said. "The same crisis faces the animal owners, so protecting their livestock has become a high priority to preserve livelihoods and food security."

Meanwhile, the Vanuatu Government has appealed for food aid. At a news conference on Friday Prime Minister Joe Natuman said the government did not have enough money to feed people for the next three months.

"I want to insist that any development partners who want to assist in the longer term please provide food," he said.

Natuman said 165,000 people were thought to have been affected by the cyclone, and there was a lack of drinking water, food, and shelter.


How you can help

Give cash - not food or household supplies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is funding relief efforts through the New Zealand Red Cross and other non-government organisations. It will not help to transport donated goods. Cargo was usually in high demand and it was important emergency supplies were given priority, the ministry said. The Government was not seeking volunteers to join its aid effort. That work was currently being done by NGOs and the military.

- Herald on Sunday

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