DOZENS of people are feared dead after Cyclone Pam pummelled Vanuatu overnight.
There are no official reports of deaths or injuries, but there is an unconfirmed report that 44 people have died in Penama Province, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) said.
It said the regions of Maewo, Ambae and Pentecost were most likely to have been hit the hardest, with an estimated 30,800 living in those areas.
The category 5 storm was travelling in the direction of the most populated island of Efate, where more than 65,000 people live, including the capital Port Vila.
"The southern islands (total population 32,540) are also likely to be directly hit," the agency said.
"The Pacific Humanitarian Team is preparing to support the government-led response to the cyclone, and continues to preposition staff and stocks both in country and within the region."
The UN aid agency said the tropical cyclone had moved westward of its expected track, placing several islands of the Vanuatu archipelago "directly in the path of the very destructive eye region of this cyclone".
"TC Pam is near peak intensity with winds in the eye region averaging 130 to 140 knots (250 to 270 km/h) with gusts up to 180 knots (340 km/h)," it said in its most recent update.
"This is an extremely destructive cyclone and those in its path will be in great danger. The expectation is that the western edge of the eye will pass over or extremely close to the eastern side of Efate (where the capital Port Vila is located) between 10pm and midnight local time in Vanuatu on 13 March."
MetService said the storm had intensified overnight and was was expected to get even stronger during the course of the day.
At 1am NZT the severe tropical storm was located around 70 kilometres east of Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.
The category 5 cyclone "intensified slightly overnight", MetService said, with the central pressure dropping to an estimated 899hPa and winds close to the centre of about 250km/h.
"The area of gales (65km/h winds) is estimated to extend up to 380km from the centre of the cyclone, affecting much of Vanuatu," MetService said in a 5.20am update.
"TC Pam is still moving slowly south, and is expected to cross the southern Vanuatu islands of Erromango and Tanna during the next 12 hours while intensifying slightly."
The tropical cyclone is still on track to skirt the northeast of New Zealand over the coming days, bringing with it heavy rain, severe gales and high seas.
A New Zealander who spent the night hunkering down from the storm, described herself as "one of the lucky ones" in an email to NZME. News Service overnight, because she was sheltering in "a solid hotel" in Port Vila.
Kristy Norton, who moved to the island capital more than two years ago with her husband and two children from Queenstown, said she felt "very safe here and well looked after" by staff at the Grand Hotel.
"It's now 8.25pm local time [10.30pm NZT] and Cyclone Pam is on top of us and appears to be slowing down her tracking speed while she's here in Port Vila," she wrote.
"Local hotels and businesses have opened their arms and doors to local people encouraging them to find strong shelter as their shanties and small village homes have no chance of survival. I sit here typing to you and it's the noise that's the worst."
There had already been reports of loss of water and power at the time of writing, she said.
"It's hard to comprehend the devastation that we'll wake to tomorrow. The stories that people are reporting on social media frighten me to tears...make me sick to my stomach," she said."There'll be loads of broken homes to repair tomorrow and many broken hearts that may never repair."
The Humans of Vanuatu Facebook page posted updates throughout the night, with an early morning post declaring "we're still here".
"It was a motherf***er at its peak, but it's down to mere cyclone levels now," the author said.
"I look at my girls lying asleep and I want to weep with relief. I think of the countless others less fortunate and my heart just breaks."
The latest update, posted shortly before 8.30am NZT, said: "Shutters blown away and trees downed. And we are indescribably lucky compared to most."
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