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Vanuatu development 'wiped out'

The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu has lost years of development progress and must "start anew" following a powerful cyclone that destroyed or damaged 90% of the buildings in the capital of Port Vila, the country's president said.

Baldwin Lonsdale, visibly weary and red eyed from lack of sleep, said that he and other top government officials were preparing to return home from Sendai, in north-eastern Japan, where they were attending a disaster conference.

Australia, which along with New Zealand and France is providing rescue and relief help, offered transport from Sydney to Port Vila, his staff said.

Mr Lonsdale said that the limited information he was able to get from home showed six people confirmed dead, and 30 injured and taken to hospital on Port Vila after the category 5 typhoon smashed across the Vanuatu archipelago.

He said information from other islands was not available because most communication links were still not working. But the airport in Port Vila has reopened, allowing aid and relief flights to reach the country. Port Vila is on the country's main island of Efate.

"This is a very devastating cyclone in Vanuatu. I term it as a monster, a monster. It's a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu. After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out."

"So it means we will have to start anew again," Mr Lonsdale said.

He appealed for humanitarian aid for the homeland he called "paradise on Earth."

"Tarpaulins, water containers, medical needs, gathering tools, construction tools, all these are very important right now," Mr Lonsdale said.

Aerial surveillance showed some communities flattened, the head of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, Hannington Alatoa, said. Mr Lonsdale said 1,000 people in Port Vila alone have been evacuated, while aid personnel from Australia, France, and New Zealand have arrived to assess the damage.

Mr Lonsdale said early warning systems and preparations in advance of the storm likely kept casualties to a minimum.

The leaders from Vanuatu found a receptive audience in Sendai, where the United Nations is working to craft a new framework for disaster risk reduction.

Talks on an agreement have proven more difficult than expected, those involved say, because of issues largely related to financing and responsibility-sharing between developing and wealthy nations.

Japan convened the conference in Sendai to highlight progress in recovery and reconstruction following a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck its north-eastern coast in March 2011, killing more than 18,500 people.

But Mr Lonsdale said the timing of the storm, which has put Vanuatu's plight in the spotlight, was a "wonder".

"It is a miracle that we are here during this conference," he said. "This conference is about disaster risk reduction. What is happening in Vanuatu is the reality. The reality of what is happening right now."

Although communications have been partially restored in Vanuatu, Mr Lonsdale and other officials said they had not yet been able to contact their own families.

"We do not know if our families are safe or not," he said. "As the leader of the nation, my whole heart is for the people, the nation."

Officials in Vanuatu said they had still not made contact with outlying islands and were struggling to determine the scale of devastation from the cyclone.

Paolo Malatu, coordinator for Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office, said officials had sent every plane and helicopter they could to fly over the hard-hit outer islands.

"The damage to homes and infrastructure is severe," Mr Malatu said. "The priority at the moment is to get people water, food and shelter."

He said bridges were down outside Port Vila making travel by vehicle impossible even around the main island of Efate.

The airport in Port Vila has reopened, allowing some aid and relief flights to reach the country.

Those left homeless were generally staying with relatives whose houses had withstood the storm, or were sleeping in temporary shelters provided by aid agencies, said Unicef spokeswoman Alice Clements.

Access to food and water is an urgent concern, said Ms Clements, who is in Port Vila. Much of the city's water supply has been tainted, so many residents are boiling water to drink. The hospital is overwhelmed with patients and cannot treat everyone that needs help, she said.

Hannington Alatoa, head of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, said flyovers by New Zealand and Australian relief teams showed much of the country had been "flattened." At least half of the population has been affected, he said.

Unicef estimated that 54,000 children were among those affected by the cyclone.

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