Aid heads for Vanuatu after devastating Pacific cyclone

Aid heads for Vanuatu after devastating Pacific cyclone
Local residents look at damaged boats washed up into a small inlet in Port Vila, the capital city of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu March 14, 2015.

SYDNEY - The first shipments of aid headed for Vanuatu on Sunday as authorities declared a state of emergency and global relief agencies geared up after a powerful cyclone tore through the vulnerable Pacific island nation.

With winds of more than 300 kph (185 mph), Cyclone Pam razed homes, smashed boats and destroyed crops as it struck late on Friday and Saturday.

The official count of confirmed deaths was at eight with 20 people injured. But those numbers were almost certain to rise as rescuers reached the low-lying archipelago's outlying islands.

Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office said the government still had no word from outside the capital.

"Our communication link is still down," said Paolo Malatu, a relief official at the office. "We haven't got any information from outside Port Vila."

"The biggest need at the moment is shelter and food and wash kits," Malatu said.

Witnesses described sea surges of up to eight meters (26 feet) and flooding throughout Port Vila after the category 5 cyclone hit.

Satellite images showed a menacing spiral of storm covering virtually the whole archipelago.

Residents said the storm sounded like a freight train. Port Vila was strewn with debris and looked as if a bomb had gone off.

Thousands of people were homeless, many left standing stunned in the wreckage of their homes. Flash floods brought more misery in Vanuatu and neighbouring countries.

President Baldwin Lonsdale, who happened to be at a disaster risk conference in Japan on Saturday, appealed to the world to "give a lending hand". He was trying to reach home on Sunday.

Red Cross officials said the first aid flight, a New Zealand military Hercules aircraft carrying tarpaulins and other emergency supplies, was cleared to land on Sunday as Port Vila's airport partially reopened.

A UN team was also due in Port Vila on Sunday with members drawn from as far away as Europe. Britain, which jointly ruled Vanuatu with France until independence in 1980, has offered up to two million pounds in assistance.

Formerly known as the New Hebrides, Vanuatu is sprawling cluster of 83 islands and 260,000 people, 2,000 km (1,250 miles) northeast of the Australian city of Brisbane.

It is among the world's poorest countries and highly prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and storms.

Aid officials said the storm was comparable in strength to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people, and looked set to be one of the worst natural disasters the Pacific region has ever experienced.

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