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Thousands wait for relief in Vanuatu as death toll inches up

By NICK PERRY
Associated Press

TANNA ISLAND, Vanuatu (AP) - Thousands of people left homeless by a fierce cyclone remained stuck in shelters across Vanuatu on Friday, waiting for relief and longing for a return to normalcy as the death toll from the disaster rose by two to 13.

Australian and French troops arrived on the South Pacific nation's hard-hit island of Tanna, where shaken residents were waiting for help after their villages were flattened by Cyclone Pam's 270-kilometer- (168-mile) per-hour winds last Saturday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing figures from Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office, upgraded the number of confirmed deaths to 13 from 11. Among the dead were seven people from Tafea Province, which includes Tanna, and six from Shefa Province, which includes the main island of Efate.

Still, given the immense power of the storm, the relatively low death toll is a testament to the residents' experience in dealing with cyclones. In many villages, people found shelter in special structures built with sturdy walls that can withstand heavy winds.

Vanuatu's government authorized the distribution of emergency food and water supplies to affected areas, and was working on a complete damage assessment report before beginning a wider distribution of relief items.

"Some relief supplies have been starting to get there anyway, but the more organized and the larger relief efforts will start tomorrow," said Osnat Lubrani, the U.N.'s Humanitarian Coordinator for Vanuatu. "The relief has to start coming now, because if it doesn't come in the next two days or so, then we will have problems with food and with water."

Aerial surveys of the islands continued Friday, with a New Zealand air force plane flying over Vanuatu's northern islands to survey the damage and check on potential water sources for survivors. On board was Cliff Luke, a Vanuatu government representative and resident of Epi Island. He grew emotional as he looked down at the battered remains of the island he calls home, where he said there is no running water and people were drinking muddy creek water to survive.

"My kids go to school there - I have kids down there," he said, and then paused. "I'm not sure how they are."

Vanuatu is a nation of subsistence farmers, dependent on the food they grow for their own survival. The cyclone wiped out gardens, killed livestock and contaminated the water supply in many areas, and agricultural experts estimate that those displaced by the storm will run out of food in less than a week.

The Vanuatu government needs at least $2 million in financial aid to buy supplies and ship them to the worst-hit islands, the U.N. said. The government was asking for donations of enough biscuits, rice and canned protein to help keep islanders' fed through June, when newly planted crops will be ready.

A barge carrying food, water and shelter materials arrived on Tanna on Friday and the supplies were being taken to the island's main hospital, said Tom Perry, spokesman for CARE Australia. Two assessment teams were also planning to reach remote sections of the island on Friday that were reported to have been decimated, he said.

The storm turned Tanna's lush tropical forests into a jumble of broken trunks and strewn branches, and damaged or destroyed at least 80 percent of homes. Critically, it also broke water pipes and decimated vegetable patches, cutting off food and water sources for most of the island's 30,000 residents. On the eastern side of the island near the belching volcano Yasur, people say the problems are compounded by volcanic ash that the winds spread everywhere, killing the plants.

Tanna resident Patrick George has spent days running around trying to find water, and trudging into the wilderness to collect fallen coconuts. The storm destroyed his crops, including bananas and a local variety of potato, and he worries about how he will feed his family when the coconuts run out. Meanwhile, the ash from the volcano has started to make the children cough.

Joseph Kamisak, tourism minister for the island's Eastern Province, said many water pipes were broken and the water systems were filled with wood and debris from the cyclone.

"It's spoiled everything," he said.

The storm also destroyed many schools in the worst-hit areas, while others are being used as shelters.

Albert Kaukare, principal at Iquaramanu Primary School on Tanna, said people were still sheltering in his school, preventing the students from returning. The cyclone had also ruined the students' supplies.

"We would like to start but some of our textbooks have all got wet, and everything damaged," he said. "At the end of this year, the year six students will be sitting exams, and it's important because this will determine whether they move on or they remain. So it's very important that they must start school."

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Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.

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