Vanuatu hit by powerful cyclone
A powerful cyclone has blown over islands in the Pacific's Vanuatu archipelago after a westward change of course put populated areas directly in the path of its destructive 168mph winds, according to relief workers.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were unconfirmed reports of deaths in Vanuatu's north-eastern islands after Cyclone Pam moved off its expected track.
The Category 5 cyclone had average wind speeds of 155mph to 170mph, with gusts up to 210mph, according to the office. It said the periphery of the eye of the storm passed over islands that are home to several thousand people and it was expected to hit or come close to the island of Efate, home to the capital Port Vila.
Located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital.
Vanuatu had earlier issued a red alert to residents urging them to take shelter from Pam.
Authorities said they feared the cyclone would destroy homes as well as cause landslides and severe coastal flooding.
The cyclone has already destroyed some homes and caused damage to other Pacific islands including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
David Gibson, acting director of the Vanuatu meteorology and geo-hazards department, said the winds could cause severe damage to the nation's buildings.
Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for relief agency Unicef, who is in Port Vila, said the capital was like a ghost town as people took shelter. She said the pelting rain was being blown horizontally by the wind.
"The weather has been getting progressively worse for the last two and a half days," she said. "They've put the deck chairs at the hotel I'm staying at into the swimming pool to stop them blowing away. It's quite surreal."
She said many people in Vanuatu live in flimsy shelters, especially those on the more remote outer islands, and those people are extremely vulnerable.
She said she expects a huge clean-up and urgent medical needs after the storm passes.
Ms Clements also said large seas had caused significant flooding in remote and low-lying Kiribati.
The Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation reported several homes and a school classroom were destroyed and crops flooded.
Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for the storm, which is forecast to pass north of the country on Sunday and Monday.