The eye of Cyclone Pam is visible in this water vapor satellite image on March 13, 2015.
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.
"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," UNICEF New Zealand Executive Director, Vivien Maidaborn, said in a statement released early Saturday afternoon local time.
As of first light, it was already clear that the damage in Port Vila and other areas was "catastrophic," Alice Clements, a UNICEF official on the ground in Port Vila told HDT by phone. It could be days, due to a lack of communication, before the full extent of the damage is known.
"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.
"There's still really strong winds. There's debris everywhere, there's buildings that are destroyed... this is really a catastrophe," said Clements, who saw the sliding doors from her three story hotel room completely blow away. "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.
Power in some areas is out, as is the national broadcasting service, according to Oxfam Australia. In Port Vila, the hospital is damaged, roads are blocked by debris, bridges are downed and the runway at the airport flooded, the development organization reports.
Access to clean and safe water is a major concern, Maidaborn said. "Power outages will have a dramatic effect on access to water which will become scarce very quickly. Waterborne diseases from the aftermath of the storm are also a huge concern," she said.
The lack of safe, hardened storm shelters may contribute to injuries and possible fatalities, Clements 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, but it's become clear that the Solomon Islands has been battered, as well, according to UNICEF.
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.
Tags: AUSTRALIA, CLIMATE, CYCLONE PAM, English, HURRICANE, VANUATU, WORLD