PORT VILA, Vanuatu - When Cyclone Pam ripped across the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, there were fears its monstrous winds could kill thousands. But as aid workers finally reached the archipelago's hard-hit outer islands Wednesday, it appeared that residents' familiarity with disasters and careful planning had spared the lives of most.
The scale of the devastation was just beginning to emerge as relief workers rushed to deliver food and water to the outer islands, which bore the full fury of the storm that struck Saturday with winds of 168 m.p.h. Yet despite finding scores of flattened villages, the death toll in the nation of 267,000 stood at 11.
Many locals took shelter in larger buildings such as schools and churches - a practice that relief groups have impressed upon Vanuatuans as a life-saving measure during storms.
Also, the storm, though massive, did not affect all islands equally. The southern islands of Futuna and Aneityum were relatively unscathed.
Vanuatu is frequently battered by cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere's summer months and lies along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," where earthquakes and volcanic activities are common - and residents have set up buildings designated as evacuation centers.
"A lot of people did evacuate," said Hanna Butler, an aid worker with the Red Cross. "Here in the Pacific, we know that disasters happen every year at this time."
Despite the high survival rate, officials and relief teams were growing increasingly worried about long-term prospects, with food and water scarce in the worst-hit areas and access to some of the more remote islands remaining difficult.
Planes carried food, water, and medical supplies to Tanna Island, where aerial assessments showed more than 80 percent of homes or buildings destroyed or heavily damaged. A boat stocked with canned goods, biscuits, and water was expected to head to the island Thursday.