Many residents in cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu were forced to hunker down for a second night in emergency shelters after venturing out yesterday to find their homes damaged or blown away, aid workers say.
Power was out across the tiny Pacific archipelago and people on many of the outer islands had no access to running water or outside communications, said Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer in the capital of Port Vila.
Cyclone Pam tore through the islands yesterday, leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.
Morrison said communications had been so poor her aid group hadn't been able to account for many of its own 76 staff on the islands and authorities had been unable to assess the extent of damage.
"I can say that for anybody who wasn't in a secure shelter last night, it would have been a very, very tough time for them," she said.
She said authorities had done a good job on Friday moving thousands of people in Port Vila into 23 evacuation centres.
Teetering trees and downed power lines in Port Vila had made many areas hazardous and she was hearing reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas.
"The damage is quite extensive in Port Vila but there are so many more vulnerable islands. I can't even imagine what it's like in those vulnerable communities."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the impact and scope of the disaster caused by the maximum category-five storm wasn't yet clear, but he feared the damage and destruction could be widespread.
"We hope the loss of life will be minimal," he said during a World Conference on Disaster Risk and Reduction in Japan. The UN said it was preparing to deploy emergency rapid response units.
Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale, who was attending the conference, told participants: "I do not really know what impact the cyclone has had on Vanuatu.
"I am speaking to you today with a heart that is so heavy," he said.
"I stand to appeal on behalf of the Government and the people to give a helping hand in this disaster."
Morrison said the winds seemed to peak between midnight and 1am yesterday. She was in a fully boarded-up cyclone-proof house but still spent a frightening night as a tree and a tin roof from a nearby home hit her house.
A westward change of course put populated areas directly in the path of the cyclone's 270km/h winds.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were unconfirmed reports of deaths in Vanuatu's northeastern islands after Cyclone Pam moved off its expected track.
New Zealand pledged $1 million to help with relief efforts. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia was preparing to send a crisis response team to Vanuatu if needed.
"There are destructive winds, rain, flooding, landslides, sea surges and very rough seas and the storm is exceedingly destructive there," she said. "We are still assessing the situation, but we stand ready to assist."
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital. The tiny Pacific island nation 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.
The cyclone destroyed some homes and caused damage to other Pacific islands including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for relief agency Unicef who is in Port Vila, said on Friday the capital was like a ghost town as people took shelter and pelting rain was blown horizontally by the wind.
The storm reportedly changed course at the last minute, hitting the capital Port Vila harder than expected.
"It's really bad out there. The wind is howling with a deep roar that just doesn't let up. Anyone not in shelter now is in mortal danger," the administrator of the Humans of Vanuatu Facebook page wrote.
Aid agencies Save the Children and Red Cross were last night assessing what was required in terms of food, medicine and shelter.