A few weeks ago, Jeff Unger stood at the lone hospital on the southern Vanuatu island of Tanna watching a corrugated roof go up onto a house for visiting medical students that he and a group of fellow Victoria doctors had raised roughly $3,000 to fix.
Today, he says half of Lenakel Hospital sits destroyed and the roughly 40 staff and one visiting doctor are still living on the grounds trying their best to keep it semi-operational after Cyclone Pam devastated the island with gusts higher than 300 kilometres an hour last weekend.
Dr. Unger left Tanna a month ago, after volunteering there for seven months with his wife, Carla, and their two young daughters.
He and his colleagues at the non-profit Victoria-Vanuatu Physician Project (ViVa) are now fundraising to eventually rebuild the hospital while lobbying the federal government to deploy the Canadian military's Disaster Assistance Response Team to help the 30,000 people on Tanna access clean water and primary medical care.
"Quite frankly, the Canadian response so far has been embarrassing; it makes me really not proud to be a Canadian," said Dr. Unger on Tuesday morning from Victoria, after getting updates from a contact in Vanuatu. "The U.K., I heard today, is actually sending a special forestry team, to Tanna specifically, that helps to clear up the aftermath of this kind of debris – and the Canadian government has issued a travel advisory [to Vanuatu]."
The military's DART team has not been deployed and Canada is waiting for a further assessment of the damage before it decides on whether to commit funds to the relief effort, according to a spokeswoman with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. At least 29 Canadians may have been in Vanuatu during the cyclone and the United Nations revised its official death toll Tuesday to 11 people, while noting at least 3,300 people are displaced. Cleanup has begun in the country's capital of Port Vila, but flight crews surveying the more than 80 other islands have witnessed scenes of desperation as homeless citizens signal for help from the ground.
There are reports that five people were killed on Tanna, but the island's communication infrastructure was destroyed and information is only coming through television news crews and satellite phones brought by aid organizations such as World Vision, Dr. Unger said.
"It sounds like the entire west side of the island is flattened in terms of trees and vegetation," Dr. Unger said.
The main crops of island cabbage and root vegetables such as manioc and taro have been wiped out, affecting the 80 per cent of the island's population that subsist on them, Dr. Unger said.
"Now unfortunately, after this a life that was already difficult will be exponentially more difficult," he added.
Meanwhile, for staff at Lenakel Hospital, access has become even more difficult to essentials such as power, running water and proper sanitation, as well as supplies such as oxygen, wound dressings, pain medication, IV fluids and antibiotics. He said that before the cyclone, such items could be ordered on the next boat and would arrive from the capital within a week or 10 days.
"Now there's no one to call," he said.
Fellow Victoria doctor Eugene Leduc spent two six-month stints on Tanna and said the island's unpaved roads are most certainly washed out, meaning those outpatients injured and sick in the outlying villages may not get medical attention for some time. Dr. Leduc and his wife, Dr. Lisa Veres, attended Lenakel Hospital last month, along with the Ungers, to celebrate the official closing of ViVa's volunteer program after 24 years of sending Vancouver Island physicians to Tanna. Now, doctors from Port Vila's hospital will rotate month-long shifts at Lenakel, he said.
Now, he and others at ViVa are encouraging people to donate to the International Red Cross to help with the immediate relief efforts. ViVa is also hoping to raise $20,000 to $60,000 to rebuild Tanna's hospital, Dr. Unger said.
Dr. Unger said he is thankful his family avoided the cyclone, but also feels a "lot of guilt in a sense that we've abandoned people."
"So that's why we're working as hard as we can to try and raise awareness and fundraise to do what we can for these people who are desperately in need now."