It is not easy for a lumbering, powerful tropical cyclone to score a direct hit on a tiny island nation like Vanuatu. The country, made up of 83 separate islands, is strung from northwest to southeast about 1,000 miles east of Australia. Most cyclones blow past it, or hit in a weaker state.
But not this time.
Category 5 Cyclone Pam did what no storm has done before in modern times — scored a direct hit on the nation’s capital of Port Vila, where about 50,000 people live in light housing along the coast — and then hit additional islands head on again.
As of first light, it was already clear that the damage in Port Vila and other areas was “catastrophic,” according to Alice Clements, a UNICEF official on the ground in Port Vila.
“The storm was much bigger than expected,” Clements said. She is based in New Zealand but flew to Vanuatu to assist with storm preparations and relief. Mashable reached her by phone while she was working to make sure all of her staff made it through the storm safely.
“There’s still really strong winds. There’s debris everywhere, there’s buildings that are destroyed… this is really a catastrophe,” she said. “People haven’t experienced a storm of this strength here.”
Port Vila was on the southwestern edge of the storm’s eye wall, and likely missed the most extreme winds of 165 miles per hour or greater. These conditions lashed the eastern side of Efate Island, and other, smaller islands that comprise the nation.
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The lack of safe, hardened storm shelters may contribute to injuries and possible fatalities, she said. The extent of damage and the human toll on outlying islands may not be known for days because of a lack of telecommunications infrastructure that could withstand such a storm.
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Clements will be working with the Vanuatu government and the international community to do rapid assessments of the country’s damage and relief needs. She will also work with authorities there to mount a relief operation.
A recent report on natural disaster vulnerability found that Port Vila is the most exposed city to natural disasters of any of the 1,300 cities studied. The Natural Hazards Risk Atlas, published by the British analytics company Verisk Maplecroft, found that Port Vila is at risk for earthquakes, tsunamis and tropical cyclones.
Global warming-related sea level rise is leading to more damaging coastal flooding in island nations such as Vanuatu. The country is one of a bloc of small island states lobbying industrialized nations to undertake steep carbon emissions reductions to avert the most significant impacts of global warming. Other members of the small island alliance also were effected by Cyclone Pam, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
An El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean, along with a potential contribution from climate change, has led to a large area of unusually mild ocean temperatures near Vanuatu, which is providing fuel for Cyclone Pam.
According to satellite estimates, the minimum central pressure in the center of Cyclone Pam was on par with some of the most intense storms on record anywhere in the world. However, without airplane reconnaissance in that area, the actual measurements will never be known.