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Vanuatu Combines Old And New Techniques For Disaster Prep

The death toll after Cyclone Pam hit the South Pacific nation was notably low thanks to new warning systems and ancient shelters. But saving the local economy may be harder than saving lives.

Life in Port Vila, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam
Life in Port Vila, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam
Claudine Wéry

PORT VILA — The property damage from the March 13 cyclone across the South Pacific archipelego of Vanuatu is huge, having hit some 80% of buildings and homes, and devastating farmlands and flattering the landscape.

But what may be most interesting in the aftermath of the destruction is the rather modest loss of human life. Initial reports of dozens killed was revised last week to a death toll of 11.

For this country of 83 islands that stretches across 12,200 square kilometers, (4,710 square miles) with a population of 267,000, issuing a complete review of the post-catastrophe situation in every village and town is an immense task. It's being tackled by the Vanuatu government in the capital of Port Vila with the help of international humanitarian missions.

With six active volcanoes and about 15 more that are dormant, as well as elevated risks for earthquakes, cyclones and tsunamis, Vanuatu is one of the most exposed places on the planet for natural disasters, as the 2014 World Risk Report noted.

Despite the force of Cyclone Pam, whose winds reached at 340 kilometers per hour (211 mph) through the night from March 13 to 14, the estimated number of killed and injured is far below similarly strong storms.

Even though Vanuatu remains an underdeveloped country, it has the capacity to confront natural cataclysms, frequent in this part of the world. Several days before Pam arrived, the island nation was already aware of the impending danger. A range of disaster prevention procedures were called upon, including a 24-hour warning center created in 2013.

Vanuatu includes a Ministry of Climate Change, which shares the same building with the national office of natural disasters as well as the meteorological department to facilitate communications during an emergency.

Natural safe havens

Sylvain Todman, a French geophysicist and engineer working for the governmental office of meteorology and geo-risks based in Port Vila, says the traditional know-how of the Melanesian communities also played a role in limiting casualties. Many found shelters in the nakamals, the local social meeting places assembled from natural materials and frequented by lovers of kava, a typical Pacific region beverage.

"The construction of the huts is embedded deeply in the ground," Todman explains. "The walls are low, and the interior is ventilated. All those features make nakamals resistant to cyclones."

Nevertheless, the destruction of subsistence farming, the main form of food production on the islands, risks triggering famine, warns Howard Waru, of Vanuatu's Agriculture Service Office. "It should be OK in the short-term, since people prepared food reserves and picked up whatever fell on the ground, but soon the situation may become critical."

On the main street of Mele, a village northeast of the capital, a big food market usually abundant in bananas, coconuts, yams, taro, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and tropical flowers has been empty since Pam tore through the island country.

A monthly sum of around 20,000 to 30,000 vatus ($185 to $277) was how much women made by selling their merchandise at the market. "I really don't know when they will be able to return," says Philemon Mansale, an eldery man who lives with his whole family in one of the numerous tin-roofed wooden sheds. "There's nothing left to sell."

His house shared the fate of many others and was left half-destroyed by the cyclone. Uprooted sticks and fruit rotting in puddles is all that's left of his garden.

"I'm almost certain that within a few months we will have to cope with famine in the country," says Runto Likiafu, an UN representative dealing with food and agriculture in Vanuatu. "We need to import food and supply the inhabitants with seeds."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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