Officials struggled on Sunday to determine the scale of the devastation wrought by a monstrous cyclone that tore through the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, as Britain committed £2m to disaster relief
Paolo Malatu, coordinator for the National Disaster Management Office, said two people were confirmed dead in the capital, Port Vila, with another 20 injured. Earlier, Chloe Morrison, a World Vision emergency communications officer, said Vanuatu's disaster response office told her agency that at least eight people died. She had also heard reports of entire villages being destroyed in more remote areas.
Alex Mathieson, Oxfam's former director of Vanuatu who lived there for four years and now works for the charity in Melbourne, Australia, said a British woman is among a number of his friends he is anxiously waiting to hear from. "We're concerned for her and a couple of other friends we haven't been able to get hold of," he said.
"We're hoping for the best from those we haven't heard from. Me and my colleagues have watched with a sense of horror and helplessness."
The confusion over the death count is largely due to a near-total communications blackout across the country. With power lines and phone circuits down, officials in the capital had no way of knowing what the scope of the damage was on the outer islands, where the storm scored a direct hit.
"We haven't been able to communicate outside Port Vila," Malatu said. "At this point, the damage is severe and we haven't had figures of how many houses destroyed. ... It's really bad, it's really bad."
Officials were planning to head to the outer islands in helicopters, small planes and military aircraft on Monday to get a better sense of the destruction, Malatu said.
Telephone networks are notoriously spotty in South Pacific island nations such as Vanuatu, particularly in the aftermath of storms. It often takes days before networks can be restored, making it incredibly difficult for officials to quickly analyze the breadth of devastation following natural disasters.
The government declared a state of emergency across the country and Australia and New Zealand sent in relief supplies. The damaged airport was closed for commercial flights, but the first delivery of supplies arrived Sunday from the Red Cross, Malatu said.
"People are really upset and it's really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven't received a really big cyclone like this one," said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu coordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350. "Most people right now, they are really homeless."
He came upon one of the storm's victims on Saturday, while surveying the damage along the coastline with other relief workers. The group spotted a man lying on the ground, not breathing, and rushed him to the hospital. By the time they arrived, however, he was dead, Nihmei said.
Structural damage across Port Vila was extensive, Nihmei said, with the majority of homes severely damaged or destroyed.
Some residents began cleaning up what was left of their wrecked houses and checking on family members. Relief workers, meanwhile, were trying to get temporary shelters to victims as fast as possible, Nihmei said.
Residents awoke to much calmer weather Sunday after many hunkered down in emergency shelters for a second straight night.
Many people who have ventured out from 23 emergency shelters around Port Vila have found their homes damaged or blown away altogether, Morrison of World Vision said. Teetering trees and downed power lines have made parts of the capital hazardous.
She said communications have been so problematic that her aid group hasn't yet been able to account for many of its own 76 staff members on the islands.
For anybody who wasn't in a secure shelter during the cyclone "it would have been a very, very tough time for them," she said.
Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
UNICEF estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.
The small island nation, located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with the island's coastal areas being washed away, forcing resettlement to higher ground and smaller yields on traditional crops.
The cyclone has already caused damage to other Pacific islands, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for Cyclone Pam, which is forecast to pass north of the country on Sunday and Monday.
The Department for International Development said "up to £1 million" will be made immediately available to UN organisations and international aid agencies already working in the region following a request from the Vanuatu government.
An additional £1 million will be made available through the UK's rapid response facility, which provides emergency support via pre-approved organisations in the event of an international humanitarian disaster.
International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: "All our thoughts are with the people of Vanuatu as they start to assess the full scale of this disaster. "It is already clear that there has been widespread devastation. Many families have lost their homes and power supplies. Roads and other infrastructure have been left badly damaged.
"Our support will ensure relief agencies can provide temporary shelters; protect vulnerable people, especially women and children; and provide emergency supplies as the country responds to this emergency."
Prime Minister David Cameron said he has been in touch with his New Zealand counterpart John Key to thank him for helping British people on the islands.
He said: "My thoughts are with those affected by Cyclone Pam. We have offered immediate support to Vanuatu."
The Foreign Office said it is working to establish whether any British nationals were affected by the disaster.