Port Vila: Vanuatu warned Tuesday it faces imminent food shortages as accounts emerged of huge damage to a large outer island, days after one of the fiercest cyclones on record pummelled the Pacific archipelago.
Relief agencies say conditions are among the most challenging they have faced, with mounting concerns about disease.
Communications to many of Vanuatu`s 80 other islands, most only accessible by boat, were still down and Prime Minister Joe Natuman said it would be at least a week before authorities had a better sense of the destruction.
President Baldwin Lonsdale has appealed for the world to help after Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam roared ashore on Friday night.
With 24 people so far confirmed dead, the scale of the disaster became clearer with the first teams of aid workers reaching Tanna island, home to 30,000 people. It is some 200 kilometres (124 miles) south of the capital Port Vila, itself badly damaged.
"The impression they got from their initial observations was that the damage is significantly worse than Port Vila," Tom Perry from CARE Australia told AFP. He added that the hospital was functioning but had no roof.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said reconnaissance by the Australian military "confirmed significant damage in the southern islands".
"And particularly Tanna island, where it appears that more than 80 percent of houses and buildings have been partially or completely destroyed," she said.
"Not only buildings flattened, but palm plantations, trees. It`s quite a devastating sight."
Natuman said while initial assessors had been able to enter the eastern and western parts of the island chain, northern and southern areas were still largely unaccessible.
"It`ll be at least a week or two. Right now we are sending teams to do ground assessments to see how many people are homeless," he told reporters at Port Vila airport, where he welcomed home Lonsdale who had been attending a disaster conference in Japan.
Benjamin Shing, from Lonsdale`s office, said survivors would quickly run out of food.
"The first week we are relying on the fact that the food crops and the gardens are still edible and they can be used for the first week, but after the first week we`ll need to get some rations on the ground," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
With crops wiped out, Shing feared the worst for a country that largely relies on subsistence farming, warning "there might be a lot of fatalities".
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a situation report "there are 24 confirmed fatalities" across Vanuatu so far and some 30 injured.
Perry said of the dead, at least five were from Tanna and CARE Australia was also worried about the lack of food.
"Food running out is of great concern," he said.
Local woman Sale Chilia said residents living in Mele, a village two kilometres south of Port Vila, were starting to worry about where they could find their next meal.
"We only have the leftovers now," she said.
In Port Vila, access to water and electricity was partially restored after the storm brought down an estimated 80 percent of power lines and damaged most homes.
Stores also began reopening, but entire neighbourhoods remained without power as aid workers streamed in after what many have said was one of the region`s worst weather disasters.
In the capital, leaves and branches lined the streets while residents began clearing metal roof sheeting from the roads around their homes and used machetes to hack through fallen trees.Personal belongings, household items, mattresses and clothes were spread out on the ground and hung on washing lines as people dried them out, with the cyclone slowly weakening.
Samuel Toara, 25, thought he was going to die when the storm barrelled ashore. He sheltered in the pitch black with two other young men as the tempest roared past his home.
"It was very hard. The cyclone sounded like a big plane flying very low," he told AFP.
As heavy rain pounded his house, made of corrugated metal and timber, part of the roof blew off.
"The rain and wind was like white smoke and it flooded up to my knee. But I told the boys, don`t worry about the water," he said. "As long as we survive."
The United Nations said there were at least 3,300 people sheltering in 37 evacuation centres around the country.
UNICEF has estimated that 60,000 children have been affected by the cyclone and virtually all schools were closed.
Emergency specialist Mioh Nemoto expressed concern about what they would eat.
"Food security is likely to be a continual problem and we need to start thinking now about how children will stay well fed."