Cyclone turns islands into ‘hell on earth’

‘Paradise’ lost: Cyclone Pam has left much of Vanuatu’s population without homes or water © PA

One of the most powerful cyclones ever has devastated the Pacific islands of Vanuatu, leaving many without homes, electricity and drinking water. But are these disasters really ‘natural’?

A state of emergency has been declared in the Pacific islands of Vanuatu after a storm known as Cyclone Pam devastated the islands on Friday and Saturday. The category five tropical storm has been described as ‘15 to 30 minutes of absolute terror’ by Unicef, and ‘one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific’ by Oxfam.

The Vanuatu lands minister says the entire population, an estimated 267,000 people, has been affected: some killed, many injured and most displaced — around 90% of houses have been destroyed. With winds of up to 185 mph and sea surges up to 8 metres, the storm has torn down bridges, trees and roofs. Crops have been destroyed and water supplies contaminated.

At least eight people have been killed in the capital Port Vila, but with communications limited, the real number could be far higher. There is concern that those in isolated islands have been cut off. But this isn’t the end: Cyclone Pam continues to spread across the South Pacific

Vanuatu’s tragedy has prompted a global response. Neighbouring Australia and New Zealand have pledged emergency aid packages totalling over $6.5m, and their first deliveries have landed on the island.

By coincidence, Vanuatu’s president, Baldwin Lonsdale, was at the UN world conference on disaster risk reduction in Japan when Pam hit. He choked up as he told the conference that what ‘was once a tropical paradise now looks like hell on earth... our hope for prospering into the future has been shattered’.

Vanuatu is a poor country, with £2,220 GDP per capita, compared to the UK’s £28,340. Isolated and exposed to the ocean, it is at the mercy of the elements. And unlike richer countries, it cannot afford sophisticated storm defences — many live in vulnerable thatched-roof homes. Nor can it afford the daunting repairs that will now be necessary.

It is not just Vanuatu. Around 95% of deaths caused by disasters occur in poor countries, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. There is a clear link between poverty and vulnerability to natural disaster: rich countries can afford to defend against disaster and recover afterwards.

Weathered debate

At moments of crisis like this, when a vulnerable nation is laid low by a so-called ‘act of God’, charitable appeals can often raise astonishing amounts of money. It just goes to show that empathy and compassion really can be a force for good in the world.

But should we really wait for our pity to be aroused before springing into action? That is not enough, many development workers say: if Vanuatu had been given this money before the catastrophe struck rather than afterwards, perhaps it could have prevented the storm from wreaking such destruction.

You Decide

  1. When a vulnerable nation suffers from a crisis like this, should richer countries take any of the blame?
  2. Some people say that there is no such thing as a ‘natural disaster’. What do you think that means? Do you agree?


  1. Imagine you’re living in an impoverished country when a storm hits, leaving you with limited water and no electricity or shelter. Write a diary of what it’s like for the first week.
  2. Research Vanuatu’s recent history and its background. Was the prime minister right that hopes of prospering into the future are gone, or is there still hope? Discuss in groups.

Some People Say...

“Foreign Assistance must create the conditions where it is no longer needed.”

Barack Obama

What do you think?

Q & A

What are countries doing to help?
Countries including Australia and New Zealand are sending aid to Vanuatu via air force planes. Other countries, including the UK, have pledged to help, as well as the EU and UN. Australia, which has very strong ties with Vanuatu, is giving $5 million in aid.
Could this happen in the UK?
No. The UK does not have the sea temperatures needed to cause a tropical storm, even on our hottest days. We have had storms that are the remnants of cyclones, however. The strongest wind ever recorded in the UK was in 1989, when a storm hit north Scotland with winds up to 142 miles per hour.

Word Watch

Category five
Developed in 1971, the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale measures the intensity of a cyclone’s sustained winds. Category five is the highest category.
Tropical storm
Cyclones are responsible for some of the most intense winds that ever occur. Typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes are all names for the same phenomenon, and only happen in areas with the right climate conditions. But as devastating as they are, they’re also essential for the Earth’s atmosphere, transferring heat and energy between the equator and cooler regions nearer the north and south poles.
Cyclone Pam has made its way across the South Pacific to Tuvalu, where a state of emergency has also been declared, as well as Fiji and the Soloman Islands. It is now heading towards New Zealand’s northern regions.
Vanuatu is a tiny state spread over 65 islands. Some of its more remote islands live without good access to healthcare.
GDP per capita
This is the total output of a country divided by the number of people who live there. It is often used as a measure of wealth to compare between countries.

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