International relief work was underway Monday in the island nations of Vanuatu and Tuvalu, where the worst tropical cyclone on record in the South Pacific has claimed at least 24 lives.
Cyclone Pam left a trail of destruction when it ripped through the region over the weekend with winds in excess of 250 kilometres per hour and heavy rain that caused flooding.
The Vanuatu archipelago was hardest hit. The UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs quoted government figures as saying that the death toll stood at 24 — up from 10 deaths previously reported by relief agencies.
That number could continue to rise as remote areas are finally reached by rescue and aid workers.
President Baldwin Lonsdale told Australian broadcaster ABC that the nation of more than 250,000 people would have to be rebuilt.
Thousands of people in Vanuatu and Tuvalu lost their homes, according to officials and humanitarian workers. Some 90 per cent of the buildings in the capital Port Vila were destroyed, Lonsdale said.
"After all the developments that has taken place, all this has been wiped out. So it means that we will have to start anew again," he told ABC.
Aid agencies say it will take days to determine the full extent of the damage.
"There's a breakdown of communications that we cannot reach our families and we do not know whether our families are safe or not," Londsdale said.
The cyclone dissipated as it made its way south-east to New Zealand's North Island on Monday.
Weather forecasters warned that it could intensify as it moves toward the Chatham Islands, Radio New Zealand reported.
Winds and rain remained severe but "substantially weaker than when the storm was category 5 on Sunday morning," WeatherWatch forecaster Philip Duncan said.
Isolated areas of New Zealand's East Cape were most at risk from high seas and heavy rain, with more than 100 residents evacuated on Monday.
In the Northland region only 200 people lost electricity overnight, Northpower electricity company spokesman Steve Macmillan told the Stuff news website.
"Winds are pretty calm. We've dodged a bullet or someone is looking down on us," Macmillan was quoted as saying.
New Zealand, Australia and the European Union have provided more than 6 million dollars in emergency aid to South Pacific nations, Vanuatu in particular.
Meteorologists said the storm was the worst of its kind to hit the South Pacific, where tropical cyclones tend to form between November and April.
Lonsdale told ABC the cyclone highlighted the vulnerability of small island states with limited capacity to deal with natural disasters.
Climate change was a contributing factor in Vanuatu, which has seen heavier rainfall than previously, he said.
"We see the level of the sea rise, changing weather patterns," Lonsdale said.
Lonsdale was speaking in Sendai, Japan where he has been attending the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.
RED CROSS MOBILIZING
The Red Cross announced the organization is releasing money to help support locals impacted by the cyclone.
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