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Cyclone leaves island nation of Vanuatu devastated

Efate, Vanuatu
Wikipedia Commons

Over the weekend, the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu was rocked by Cyclone Pam, affecting at least half of its population with 168 mph winds.

Vanuatu is located off of the coast of Australia, and is home to 267,000 people spread over 65 islands. 47,500 people live in the capitol, Port Vila.

Cyclone Pam was a class five storm (the worst kind), and it has left the nation devastated. Power lines and communication are down, which has made it difficult to know the full extent of the damage. Information continues to roll in, but here’s what international media knows now:

1. So far, 6 people have been confirmed dead, and 30 injured. However, it’s likely that numbers are much higher- we’re all still in the dark as communication with smaller islands has been patchy at best for most news outlets and rescue operations. .

2. The structural damage is severe. President Lonsdale reports that 90% of the buildings in the capitol are either destroyed or damaged, with still limited information from hard-hit outer islands.

Paolo Malatu, coordinator for Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office, says, "The damage to homes and infrastructure is severe. The priority at the moment is to get people water, food and shelter."

3. Access to food and water is an urgent concern. Much of Port Vila’s water supply has been compromised, forcing people to rely on boiled water.

4. Vanuatu’s leadership are doing their best to quickly assess the damage. On the main island of Efate, bridges are down, making it impossible to travel by vehicle around the island. But, Malatu says that planes and helicopters have been sent out to investigate hard-hit outer islands. The world should know more by early Tuesday.

While the death toll might be low now, it’s imperative that the global community takes this disaster seriously. Hannington Alatoa, President of Vanuatu’s Red Cross, explained, “Agencies have been advised to take a no regrets approach, even if information is limited. It is important to prepare for the worst.”

The structural damage alone could have devastating consequences for Vanuatu. Rebuilding could take years, leaving people vulnerable to decreased access to health services, home insecurity, job insecurity, etc.

As a global community, we need to do two things.

First, we must recognize the severity of this disaster and act accordingly. Regardless of the near term death toll, if the world’s nations don’t come together and act swiftly and efficiently, there will be a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Let’s not let that happen.

Secondly, the world needs to learn from this example. Like other island nations, Vanuatu has been cited by some as an example of the negative effects of climate change. President Lonsdale agrees: "Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu. We see the level of sea rise. Change in weather patterns. This year we have heavy rain more than every year."

However, scientists say it’s impossible to attribute specific weather events, like a cyclone, to climate change. Instead, some scientists suggest that the increased number of weather disasters, and the fact that they appear more severe than before, is proof that climate change is already affecting the planet.

Regardless, the takeaway is this: more people are being affected by environmental chaos than ever before. And, the majority of these people live in poorer countries that can’t bounce back as quickly as wealthier ones. As world leaders meet in September to write the to-do list for the next 15 years, it’s vital that they consider the potential for environmental disaster and the effects on developing countries.

Right now we can act. Sign the petition to tell world leaders and international organizations to send emergency funding and support to Vanuatu, to save as many lives as possible. The Cyclone is over but the humanitarian crisis is just beginning. Action now is the key to saving lives.

For more coverage on the disaster, check out these tweets from organizations on the ground and others covering events: