By Paul Dobbyn
THE resilient people of Vanuatu are on Stephanie Lalor’s mind and in her prayers.
The Caritas Australia Pacific Programs manager, a former Port Vila resident, is anxiously awaiting news from her friends as communications return to the cyclone-battered capital of Vanuatu where 90 per cent of buildings have been destroyed.
“I still haven’t heard from them and can only hope and pray they’re all right,” Ms Lalor said.
Her concern came on top of the task of preparing Caritas Australia’s response to the unfolding human tragedy in the wake of Cyclone Pam, which unleashed gales of up to 340 km/hour on Vanuatu on March 13.
On March 17, Ms Lalor flew out from Sydney to Port Vila with these challenges and questions in her mind.
Twenty-four people have been reported dead with up to 70 per cent of Vanuatu’s population of 250,000 on the country’s 65 inhabited islands displaced.
The death toll is expected to climb once contact has been made with the country’s outer islands.
The Caritas Australia worker, who was involved in relief work in Samoa after Cyclone Evan at the end of 2012, said the latest destruction was “unprecedented”.
“Damage to buildings and infrastructure on the main island of Efate, where capital Port Vila is located, will slow the process of recovery for Vanautu,” she said.
“Some 90 per cent of buildings on Efate are reported to have been destroyed, which is really significant.
“The main hospital lost part of its roof, and the water supply on many parts of the main island is only intermittent.
“Communications are an ongoing concern … for 24 hours, no electricity at the height of the cyclone meant there was no contact even with Port Vila.
“Very little contact is still possible with islands to the north and south.”
Ms Lalor is liaising with Caritas New Zealand and has been able to reach key members of Port Vila diocese who have established a disaster response committee.
On March 16, she was also hoping to contact Port Vila Bishop Jean Bosco Baremes, believed to be in Fiji at the time of the cyclone, now expected to fly back to the capital.
Ms Lalor said as with her experience following Samoa’s devastation, she was already seeing the benefits of the network of local churches.
“The network is already on the ground with strong local connections,” she said.
“The churches are also a known place of shelter.
“People were reported to have sheltered in Port Vila cathedral but there are no reports on the condition of the cathedral.
“It’s a very strong structure although you have to wonder how it will have survived, given the extent of damage on the island.”
Pope Francis at his weekly prayers pledged his “solidarity with the people of Vanuatu … I pray for the dead, the injured and the homeless”.
Catholic Mission national director Martin Teulan asked all Australians for their prayerful support.
“Each day we are seeing more horrifying images and reports of utter devastation in Vanuatu,” he said.
“As our nation’s heart collectively aches for the people of Vanuatu, I ask you to join us in offering your prayers and thoughts for our neighbours.
“The scale of destruction is difficult to fathom, even for a nation that is no stranger to natural disaster. Much of Vanuatu has been totally levelled, and this morning many of its people have awoken without their families, their homes and their livelihoods.
“At such a time, we must think of the youngest victims of this tragedy, who simply cannot understand why this has happened.
Mr Teulan was confident that the nation would rebuild.
“The people of Vanuatu are resilient and faithful. I ask you to pray for them as they come to terms with what has transpired, and also for the relief to come,” he said.
A Pacific Emergency Appeal has opened for donations to help recovery work in Vanuatu.
For more information visit www.caritas.org.au or contact 1800 024413.