12 Mar 2015

Grave concerns as Cyclone Pam nears Vanuatu

6:24 pm on 12 March 2015

Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office says it is preparing for the worst as Tropical Cyclone Pam is expected to be upgraded to a category five storm in the next two days.

The cyclone is moving slowly towards Vanuatu with winds at its centre of about 185 kilometres an hour.

A Satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Pam as it approaches Vanuatu

Satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Pam as it approaches Vanuatu, as at 6.50am Friday (NZ time) Photo: Vanuatu Meteorological Service

The Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) acting director Peter Korisa said the storm was likely to become the most devastating cyclone since Cyclone Uma in 1987.

Cyclone warnings have been issued for Torba, Sanma, Penama, Malampa and Shefa provinces, with warnings expected to cover the entire country later tonight.

Mr Korisa said officials were working out how to give appropriate refuge to more than 45,000 people in the country's capital, Port Vila.

"Public buildings like churches and the classrooms, school classrooms and community halls, in fact they don't really meet the standards. But we usually identify those with some basic facilities like toilets, and some buildings that can cater for such needs," he said.

Mr Korisa said if Cyclone Pam caused damage beyond the capacity of Vanuatu government, it would need to appeal to international donors.

"There's no formal standard house here so I'm just imagining if this happens in Port Vila, it will be disastrous," he said.

Continuous heavy rains fall in Solomon Islands caused by Cyclone Pam in the country's east heading South East and away to Vanuatu.

Cyclone Pam brought heavy rain to Solomon Islands before heading south-east towards Vanuatu. Photo: RNZ / Margaret Maealasia

A forecaster at Vanuatu's Meteorological Service, David Gibson, said Pam is expected to move in a southerly direction to the east of the country's northern provinces -- but these provinces would still be severly affected.

Mr Gibson said he holds great concerns for the country's low-lying southern provinces, which are forecast to take a direct hit.

"The islands down south are very small and very low-lying and, yeah, we're expecting very heavy rainfall, very rough seas, damaging winds as well as coastal flooding on most of these small islands."

Cyclone Pam is strengthening as it moves towards Vanuatu.

Cyclone Pam shown in Earthnull's visualisation of global weather conditions based on supercomputer forecasts. Photo: Earthnull

A Fiji Meteorological Service forecaster, Stephen Meke, said small islands in eastern Solomon Islands were already being bombarded with rain as it moved south towards Vanuatu.

"The cyclone is still intensifying. We are anticipating it to cross category five over the next 24 to 48 hours. It has been dumping a lot of rain and also some very destructive winds." Mr Meke said.

The National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) in Vanuatu is scrambling to organise evacuation centres in anticipation of Tropical Cyclone Pam.

Mr Korisa said new settlements around Port Vila are at risk and officials are working on an evacuation plan.

"What we are doing ... we're trying to arrange the evacuation centres. We're talking with civil authorities, especially church organisations, schools and public buildings. We're trying to arrange if we can use these evacuation centres."

Cyclone Pam is then forecast to continue in a Southeast direction, between Fiji and New Caledonia, where the territory's civil defence organisation has issued a pre-alert.

On its current path, Pam will pass about 200 km east of the island of Mare on Saturday, bringing violent gusts and heavy rain.

In Fiji, the government has ordered that schools close tomorrow and the military has been deployed across the country as emergency services step up their preparations.

Land Force Commander, Colonel Sitiveni Qiliho, said his troops were expected to play a large part in any disaster response within two hours.

"We have 89 engineers deployed on 14 projects around the two main islands. They are already in position and then we've moved members of our infantry battalion into other areas that we see needs to be covered and also we have a standby element here. We're looking at 250-300 troops on 30 minutes notice to move now."

In March last year, Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Lusi over two days, which killed 10 people dead, damaged crops and infrastructure, flooded towns and contaminated water supplies.

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