A New Zealand reporter on the ground in Vanuatu says entire buildings have been demolished by the force of Tropical Cyclone Pam.
At least eight people are confirmed dead in Vanuatu after a massive cyclone tore through the tiny South Pacific archipelago, and the death toll is likely to rise once communications are restored with outlying islands.
Newstalk ZB reporter Frances Cook, who is in Vanuatu, said they had been expecting wind gusts of up to 200km/h.
"They actually clocked well over 300km/h, and you can see that when you look around and you see the damage," she said.
"The hotel right next to mine is completely demolished, entire trees uprooted, huge trees uprooted, roofing iron everywhere, even supposedly cyclone-proof apartments ... they've had roofs ripped off them as well."
She continued: "Here in Port Vila, which is the nerve centre, it's where the houses are built the strongest - it's believed that up to 90 per cent of those houses have been severely damaged if not totally demolished.
"Even the hospital has been damaged, so of course, they [hospital staff] are trying to deal with everything at a very much reduced capacity."
Vanuatu's airport was "in lock-down" she said, as tourists tried to leave the devastated island.
"Tourists who are stuck here, some of them apparently didn't know the cyclone was coming, and they can't get out," she said.
"Nobody is in, nobody is out."
Even planes carrying aid relief were "finding it very difficult" to get permission to land, she said. Once in Vanuatu, charity workers would face the problem of not knowing where resources and staff were needed because communication to outer islands had yet to be restored.
"It's really hard getting that information, knowing exactly how bad it is, where to send resources, where to send people."
In the southern islands of Tanna and Erromango, there had been reports of two deaths and widespread destruction.
Aurelia Balpe, head of the Red Cross Pacific division, said a Vanuatu businessman who ran a plane and helicopter charter company, flew over Erromango and stopped on the western side of Tanna today.
"All corrugated iron houses....were completely destroyed in the area of Tanna he saw," Ms Balpe said.
"There were uprooted trees, debris on the road. The people locally said to him that they were concerned about access to water and were asking when people would be coming in support. People reported two deaths - that's unconfirmed."
The man also said the roofs of all the concrete structures he saw had been torn away, she said.
"In Erramango, he went over a place called Dillon's Bay and described it as flattened."
The initial reports indicated the aid response and needs of communities in the Tafea province, which encompassed Tanna and Erromango, would be similar to Port Villa, Ms Balpe said.
Relief effort begins
However, the first relief flights have managed to land in Vanuatu this afternoon, a welcome sight after the massive cyclone tore through the tiny South Pacific national leaving a trail of death and destruction.
Military planes are the only aircraft currently able to land, as the power is still out and the terminal damaged, an Air Vanuatu spokeswoman said.
She said the first plane to land was a New Zealand Defence Force flight carrying aid supplies.
Communications across the country remain extremely difficult, with cellphone towers and power lines ripped out by winds of up to 320km/h. Outlying islands have been entirely cut off and may be for some time.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there were currently 163 New Zealanders in Vanuatu. Consular staff had been contacting New Zealanders to confirm their well-being.
With communications down, staff had resorted to visiting hotels to personally check on places where New Zealanders were known to be staying.
At this stage the ministry has not received reports of any New Zealander casualties.
New Zealand has increased its immediate contribution to help countries hit by Cyclone Pam to $2.5 million.
Foreign Minister Murray McCully this afternoon said another $1.5 million would be spent, adding to the $1 million announced yesterday.
The bulk of the money will go to efforts in Vanuatu.
"The situation is Vanuatu is not yet fully reported, we expect more grim news in the day or so ahead, but already the impact is clearly very significant," Mr McCully said.
Of the newly announced $1.5 million, $1 million will be spent working with NGOs that currently have capacity on the ground in Vanuatu, with $500,000 going to the Government to aid relief efforts.
Mr McCully said an initial assessment of the main island revealed a huge challenge.
"About 90 per cent of the buildings have been damaged to some degree, and the prospect is up to 10,000 people homeless.
"We are still awaiting the results of a flyover of some of the outer islands. We expect the position there will be at least as difficult as it is on the main island."
There were six confirmed deaths, but that was likely to increase in the coming days as more information came in, Mr McCully said.
The main airport was out of commission for commercial flights and that could be the case for some time.
"The tower has been taken out, the terminal flooded. That is going to be difficult to get back into operation, but it is available for the humanitarian flights that are taking place at the moment."
It was a guessing game as to how many New Zealanders might be in Vanuatu, Mr McCully said.
"Because sadly the level of comfort that New Zealanders have travelling in the region is such that they don't always indicate their travel plans to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
As such, and with communications severely restricted, it was impossible to say whether any Kiwis were in significant trouble, Mr McCully said.
The $2.5 million in emergency aid was likely to increase as the scale of the disaster became clearer.
"It [the $2.5 million] will deal with the challenges that we have identified at the moment, but clearly the homelessness that has been indicated to be up to about 10,000 people in [Port] Vila alone is going to require additional work over some period of time, and we'll obviously be sharing the burden with others in our region.
"And I'm pleased to see the government of the United Kingdom coming to the party overnight with a significant contribution. I think the scale of this will gain attention internationally."
Mr McCully said other countries in the region had been significantly affected, although not as badly as Vanuatu.
There was damage from high tides in Tuvalu, flood damage in Fiji and "quite a big impact in one province" in the Solomon Islands.
Packing winds of 320km/h, Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu, leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.
Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer in Port Vila, said officials from Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office confirmed to her agency that at least eight people in and around the capital, Port Vila, had died during the cyclone.
Officials have yet to assess the damage in many of the hard-hit outer islands because communications remain down.
Ms Morrison said she had heard reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas. "We've seen villages that have just literally been blown away."
Low-lying Tuvalu, north east of Vanuatu, has declared a state of emergency. The cyclone caused flash floods there. Crops and houses have been washed away. In the Soloman Islands houses, trees and crops were flattened after the storm hit on Thursday. Residents took shelter in their homes. Widespread damage has been reported but so far no loss of life.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said nearly half of the island's population was displaced as a result of cyclone Pam, Radio New Zealand reported.
Mr Sopoaga also had concerns about access to clean water, food and medicine.
In Kiribati high tides, strong winds and rain damaged infrastructure across the island, including a vital causeway. The road linking southern Tarawa to the island of Betio has been shut . Work is continuing to repair it. There was also widespread flooding. Seawalls had collapsed and the tides had swept through homes, an official told Radio New Zealand.
Damage in Fiji and Rarotonga while there have been no reports of Cyclone Pam in Samoa as yet. Those in the Kermadecs, including Department of Conservation staff on Raoul Island, have been warned the storm could hit strongly as it towards New Zealand today.
A westward change of course put populated areas directly in the path of Pam. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were unconfirmed reports of an additional 44 deaths in Vanuatu's northeastern islands after Pam moved off its expected track.
Labour's Pacific Island affairs spokesman Su'a William Sio said aid was needed in the cyclone-ravaged nations "sooner rather than later", and urged the Government to do more to help recovery efforts. "Not only have families lost their homes and power supplies, but roads and other infrastructure have been badly damaged," he said."It has been estimated around 80 per cent of homes in Port Vila have been destroyed. That is almost unfathomable." Certainly the initial $1 million will be helpful, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to what is expected to be hundreds of millions of dollars of damage."
Unicef aid worker Alice Clements said it was "impossible" at this stage to gauge exactly how many had been injured or killed in the storm. "We simply don't have telecommunications with other parts of the country and the entire country doesn't have power. The true extent of this thing is going to become much clearer over time. We know it's serious we just don't know how serious."
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
Ms Clements said the destruction from the storm was "devastating". "I keep trying to think about just how lucky I was in the structure I was in, as we go out of town we are going to see flimsier and flimsier structures."It's where I fear the worst."
After reports that six of New Zealanders working for Volunteer Service Abroad were unaccounted for, the agency contacted the Herald this morning to say all were now safe.
"All our volunteers and staff in Port Vila and Santo are now confirmed safe (19 of 23 people total). We also have volunteers on the islands of Pentecost, Malekula and Tanna, where communications are still down," a spokesman said.
Ms Morrison said communications had been so problematic that her aid group hasn't yet been able to account for many of its own 76 staff on the islands and authorities have been unable to assess the extent of the 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.
Ms Morrison said authorities did a good job on Friday moving thousands of people in Port Vila into 23 evacuation centers. With the winds and rain easing Saturday, many people stepped out only to find that their homes were missing a roof or had disappeared, and were forced to return to the shelters.
Teetering trees and downed power lines in Port Vila have made many areas hazardous, Ms Morrison said, adding that she had heard reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas.
"It's still really quite dangerous outside. Most people are still hunkering down," she said.
Unicef estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone, with organisation's New Zealand executive director describing the destruction as "potentially one of the worst in Pacific history".
Vivien Maidaborn, said: "The sheer force of the storm, combined with communities just not set up to withstand it could have devastating results for thousands across the region."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the impact and scope of the disaster caused by the cyclone wasn't yet clear, but he feared the damage and destruction could be widespread.
"We hope the loss of life will be minimal," Mr Ban said during the World Conference on Disaster Risk and Reduction in Japan.
The UN said it was preparing to deploy emergency rapid response units.
The president of Vanuatu, 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. I stand to appeal on behalf of the government and the people to give a helping hand in this disaster."
Communications were down last night as emergency teams tried to reach outlying communities to confirm numbers of injured and dead.
Save the Children's Vanuatu director Tom Skirrow said early reports indicated at least 44 people were killed but more fatalities were expected. "There has been massive damage, houses have been destroyed, trees are down, roads are blocked, and people are wandering around looking for help."
New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully yesterday announced a $1million fund to help Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands. The ministry will meet today to assess what other help is needed.
An Air Force Orion was already in the Pacific doing a damage assessment over Tuvalu, McCully said.
Ms Morrison said the first priority was to ensure people had adequate food, drinking water and shelter. Beyond that, she said, there would need to be a long and concerted rebuilding effort in the months ahead.
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."
The small island nation, located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, 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.
Scientists say it's impossible to attribute single weather events like Cyclone Pam to climate change.
The cyclone has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for Cyclone Pam, which is forecast to pass north of the country today and tomorrow.
MetService said Cyclone Pam was still a category 5 cyclone, but was beginning to weaken. At 1am NZT the storm was located over waters about 500km southeast of Noumea, New Caledonia. It was moving quickly south-southeast at 45 km/h.
MetService said the storm had begun a "weakening trend", although winds near the centre of the storm were still estimated to be over 200 km/h. "As TC Pam moves southeast over cooler waters it should continue to weaken, but will still be an intense storm with hurricane force winds near the centre out to midnight tonight."
Kiwi honeymooners' crazy horrific night
New Zealand honeymooners Mandy and Richard Hurring described the devastation as "horrific" and "emotional".
The couple went to Tanna first for three nights, before arriving in Port Vila last Saturday.
They spent last night hunkering down in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn in Port Vila, along with 230 others from resorts across the island.
Mrs Hurring said many New Zealand and Australian ex-pats in Vanuatu had also come to the Holiday Inn for shelter.
"We were in the ballroom which they turned into a shelter. It was concrete so you couldn't hear a lot but upstairs it was crazy. It was horrific. The hardest thing was coming out in the morning and seeing all the devastation. It's really emotional."
She added: "We've heard lots of story of people not being able to make it here and [sheltering in a toilet] somewhere, it's pretty scary."
She said she had also heard reports that many smaller resorts had now been destroyed by the storm and the roof had been blown off the hospital.
"Seeing the photos around the island we got off lucky, we are really lucky."
The couple had since returned to their room - which had been badly damaged by water in the storm."Now it's humid... it stinks, it's pretty gross."
Mrs Hurring said they were due to catch a flight back to New Zealand yesterday, but have since been told they may be waiting for one to two weeks. "It's just not knowing now, we don't know when we are going to get home now."
Nervous wait for news from Vanuatu
Anxious New Zealand families were last night waiting to hear from loved ones in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam devastated island communications and closed the airport.
Among them was Nikki Keegan of New Plymouth, who hasn't heard from her 74-year-old father in Vanuatu since the category five cyclone tore through the central island of Efate and its capital Port Vila.
It was especially difficult for Keegan, whose brother Trent was killed in Kenya in 2008.
"We lost our brother abroad and perhaps we're a little more wary because we know it can happen," Keegan told the Herald on Sunday.
The murder of her photographer brother Trent in Nairobi was never solved. Keegan still remembers receiving the phone call breaking the news to them.
"Ministry of Foreign Affairs said to me, 'The worst thing is not knowing', and I said, 'Well, unfortunately, I know the worst that actually can come, and the worst is the call'."
She said her father was resourceful and she was confident he would make the best of the situation.
She was staying positive but was "very conscious" that others could be receiving bad news.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 163 New Zealanders were in Vanuatu.
About 500 people from Vanuatu are permanently living in New Zealand, according to the last Census.
Many more travel here for seasonal work.
Seasonal Solutions chief executive Greg Watson said his organisation was supporting more than 650 workers.
"The workers in New Zealand are desperate for information and we are doing everything we can to support them."
Some workers wanted to go home.
"But with no flights running, and the only likelihood of any flights in the next few days being aid flights, all they can do is sit tight and wait," Watson said.
"It is a very stressful time for these men."
Mfat says those trying to reach loved ones should try text messaging rather than calling.
Val King was one of those who had a sleepless night receiving updates from her son Steven, who lives in Vanuatu with his partner and three children.
He sent texts between 2am and 6am to keep his parents assured the family were safe.
"That's the only little bit of communication he's got," King said.
Advice for New Zealanders
• New Zealanders affected by Tropical Cyclone Pam who require consular assistance are advised to contact the relevant New Zealand High Commission or Consulate-General:
• The New Zealand High Commission Port Vila, Vanuatu - 678 22 933 or firstname.lastname@example.org (Please note that the High Commission in Port Vila has closed to the public)
• The New Zealand High Commission Suva, Fiji - +679 331 1422 or NZHC@unwired.com.fj
• The New Zealand Consulate-General Noumea, New Caledonia - +687 272 543, +687 79 19 22 or email@example.com.
- With AP and agencies
- Additional reporting: Kirsty Johnston and Teuila Fuatai of the New Zealand Herald