WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Officials struggled Sunday to determine the scale of the devastation wrought by a monstrous cyclone that tore through the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, with death counts varying in the single digits but expected to rise once communications are restored with outlying islands.
Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu early Saturday, packing winds of 168 miles per hour, and leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.
Two people were confirmed dead in the capital, Port Vila, with 20 injured there, said Paolo Malatu, coordinator for the National Disaster Management Office. Earlier, Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer, said Vanuatu's disaster response office told her agency that at least eight people died. She had also heard reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas.
The confusion over the death toll is due largely to a near-total communications blackout across the country. With power lines and phone circuits down, officials in the capital had no way of knowing what the scope of the damage was on the outer islands, where the storm scored a direct hit.
"We haven't been able to communicate outside Port Vila," Malatu said. "At this point, the damage is severe and we haven't had figures of how many houses destroyed. . . . It's really bad, it's really bad."
Officials are planning to head to the outer islands Monday in helicopters, small planes, and military aircraft to get a better sense of the destruction, Malatu said. Telephone networks are notoriously spotty in South Pacific island nations such as Vanuatu, particularly in the aftermath of storms. It often takes days before networks can be restored, making it incredibly difficult for officials to quickly analyze the breadth of devastation following natural disasters.
Vanuatu's government has declared a nationwide state of emergency, and Australia and New Zealand have sent in relief supplies. Port Vila's airport was damaged and closed for commercial flights, but the first delivery of supplies arrived Sunday from the Red Cross, Malatu said.
"People are really upset and it's really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven't received a really big cyclone like this," said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu coordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350. "Most people . . . are really homeless."