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Adviser: Next 3 Months Crucial To Preventing Starvation On Vanuatu

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One week ago, Cyclone Pam tore through the islands of Vanuatu with winds as high as 165 miles per hour. There are 13 people confirmed dead. Given the storm's intensity, that's a remarkably low death toll. And many chalk that up to the nation's preparedness. Joining us from Port Vila, Vanuatu, is Christopher Bartlett. He's coordinating food security and agriculture response to Cyclone Pam for the Vanuatu government. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER BARTLETT: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And first, what is the situation one week after this storm?

BARTLETT: I think right now we are dealing with a food security issue. All the gardens in the country have been completely destroyed. What we're doing is encouraging people to pick up anything that's left on the ground, the leafy vegetables, and try to eat the remaining roots crops. But we're estimating that we're going to run out of food in about three days' time across the entire nation. And after that we are working with humanitarian partners to get food to the country.

BLOCK: And how will you do that in those places that are so hard to reach?

BARTLETT: We've got military ships standing by from our neighboring countries, also helicopters and small planes. So we are doing our best to coordinate that food aid. In addition to the food, we are trying to get seeds out to every single household, so that immediately we can replant our food gardens. Most of the food crops that we are sending out seeds for can be harvested in three months. Now, that's three months where there is going to be no food at all available in these remote islands.

BLOCK: How do you explain that the death toll was as low as it was - 13 people killed with a storm that was this powerful.

BARTLETT: Look, I think Vanuatu is well-used to hurricanes. We're in a hurricane belt. And our structures - many of them are constructed with traditional materials. We use thatch; we use timber, which are not nearly as dangerous as the Western materials. And I think it's quite normal that island communities have a traditional structure that is a cyclone-proof house.

BLOCK: But if those structures - those traditional thatch structures - weren't able to stand up to 165-hour - mile per hour winds, where do those people go to survive?

BARTLETT: The stories were horrible. People were completely exposed to the storm. They were lying pressed flat to the ground as coconut trees were flying around them. It was a horrifying experience for so many people this country.

BLOCK: Apart from the immediate need of food and water, what about medical care, long-term rebuilding?

BARTLETT: The capacity of Vanuatu to respond in the long term has been completely overwhelmed. In fact, we've been fighting since the beginning of the climate change negotiations. Vanuatu has been at the forefront of calling on global governments to establish a mechanism for loss and damage, recognizing that there is only so much a small island country like Vanuatu can do. And the international global community really is going to have to play a part in the risk sharing and recovery and reconstruction.

BLOCK: Is there some concern there that because the death toll was as low as it was that the international community might overlook the needs there? That it may not seem as bad as you're experiencing on the ground.

BARTLETT: I think that is a huge worry for everybody here. We're extremely worried that on the minimum rations that we have in country people are going to go hungry. That's going to lead to health nutrition problems and ultimately the resilient recovery of our nation.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Bartlett, thanks so much for being with us.

BARTLETT: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Christopher Bartlett. He's coordinating a food security and agriculture response to Cyclone Pam for the government of Vanuatu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.