Aid has began arriving in Vanuatu as the tiny Pacific nation struggles to uncover the devastation wrought by what could be one of the region’s worst ever storms.
The official death toll in the capital Port Vila stands at six, although experts say this is likely a fraction of the fatalities nationwide with reports entire villages have been “blown away” by Cyclone Pam.
Communications were still down across most of the archipelago’s 80 islands on Sunday, although Port Vila airport reopened with limited facilities to allow in much-needed aid.
Two Australian airforce planes landed with food, shelter and medicine while a New Zealand military aircraft also arrived loaded with eight tonnes of tarpaulins, water containers, chainsaw packs and generators.
Commercial flights were scheduled to resume on Monday.
The government said it was still trying to assess the scale of the disaster unleashed when the maximum category five system vented its fury on Friday night, with winds reaching 320 kilometres an hour.
The UN had unconfirmed reports Pam had killed 44 people in one province alone and Oxfam said the destruction in Port Vila was massive, with 90 per cent of houses damaged.
While the focus was on Vanuatu, Tuvalu – about 1550 kilometres to the northeast – also saw thousands forced from homes.
“This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific, the scale of humanitarian need will be enormous … entire communities have been blown away,” said Oxfam’s Vanuatu director Colin Collet van Rooyen.
Vanuatu Red Cross president Hannington Alatoa said: “Effectively the whole country … is flattened.”
Pictures from Port Vila show streets littered with debris, cars crushed by trees, buildings blown to pieces and yachts washed inland.
Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale described the storm as “a monster that has devastated our country”, his voice breaking as he described Port Vila’s devastation.
“Most of the buildings have been destroyed, many houses have been destroyed, school, health facilities have been destroyed,” he told the BBC from Japan, where he was attending a disaster management conference when the cyclone hit.
Vanuatu police commissioner Colonel Job Esau said some areas of the capital – such as shopping districts and the waterfront – had been deemed off-limits to try to stop looting through the night.
Ivan Oswald, an Australian who has lived in Vanuatu for 13 years, said he had seen “opportunistic looting” of houses and boats.