Aid agencies say that a tropical cyclone could have wiped out entire villages in Vanuatu, in what could be one of the worst disasters in Pacific history.
Unconfirmed reports suggest dozens of people could have died when Cyclone Pam tore through the archipelago of islands with winds of up to 155mph. The devastation is beginning to emerge but communications have been affected and it could be some time until the extent of the damage is known.
Read more: Tropical Cyclone Pam in numbers
The Foreign Office said it is working to establish whether any British nationals were affected by the disaster. The highly populated island of Efate, which includes the Vanuatu capital Port Vila, was directly in the path of the cyclone.
Aid officials said the storm may be unprecedented in the island’s history and could be one of the worst natural disasters the Pacific region has ever seen, hitting Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands before reaching Vanuatu late on Friday.
Oxfam’s executive director Helen Szoke said the agency was also deeply concerned for people in Vanuatu’s harder to reach outer islands.
“These islands have much less infrastructure than the capital of Port Vila and are extremely remote and hard to reach in the best of times,” Dr Szoke said.
“We hold grave fears for the people on these outer and remote islands. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we are now dealing with a worst-case scenario in Vanuatu.”
Above: amateur footage reveals damage in Port Vila after Cyclone Pam tore through the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu
The charity said there is “real concern” of a high death toll, with more than 250,000 people at risk from the tropical cyclone.
Unicef New Zealand director Vivien Maidaborn said: “While it is too early to say for certain, early reports are indicating that this weather disaster could potentially be one of the worst in Pacific history.”
Located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
Residents had the roofs ripped off their homes as they tried to shelter and then found themselves unable to move because of the strong winds. Many of Vanuatu’s 260,000 people live in buildings made of thatch.
The Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office had red alerts in place for several provinces, but late on Saturday the storm was beginning to move off slowly to the south.
UN relief workers were preparing to send in teams on Sunday but with the airport closed and winds still high it remained unclear whether they would be able to land.
Unconfirmed reports said that 44 people died in outlying north-eastern islands, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said. Figures from the government were not available and aid workers. Aid officials said at least one person died in Papua New Guinea’s outlying islands, but many areas were cut off.
Cyclone Pam is the most severe storm to hit the tiny Pacific island nation since at least 1987. Aid officials said it was comparable in strength to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people.
For more information about relief efforts in Vanuatu visit www.unicef.org.uk/cyclone