Vanuatu on red alert as Cyclone Ula, category 4 storm, approaches

PERTH, January 10 (Reuters) - Residents of Vanuatu are taking shelter as a category four cyclone brings heavy rain and strong winds to the same area devastated by the largest cyclone in the South Pacific island nation’s history last year, aid workers said on Sunday. Disaster management authorities have issued a red alert for islands in Tafea, the southernmost of Vanuatu’s six provinces, a spokesman of CARE Australia told Reuters.

“Most people are sheltering in schools and churches, the only permanent buildings on these islands,” Sam Bolitho said. “Some people are also sheltering in caves.”

The eye of the storm, Ula, is not expected to pass over any islands but the ring of the cyclone was causing damage, Bolitho said in an email.

Islanders are bracing for winds expected to reach up to 165 kmph (100 mph), besides flash flooding, landslides and storm surges. Last March, tropical cyclone Pam, a category 5 storm, the highest classification, wiped out more than 90 percent of Vanuatu’s crops, tore up homes and power networks, killed 11 and disrupted the lives of most of its 252,800 people.

“This time, people are taking every possible precaution,” said Inga Mepham, CARE’s Vanuatu program director, adding that the aid agency was working with disaster authorities to spread the latest weather information and take precautionary measures.

Reporting by Morag MacKinnon; Editing by Clarence Fernandez