Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest storms seen in the South Pacific in years, has made a direct hit on the capital of Vanuatu, Port Vila, raising fears of mass devastation.
Satellite imagery shows the eye of the massive Category 5 storm making landfall on the small island housing the city in central Vanuatu.
The capital, the biggest city in the Vanuatu island chain, sits on the coastline, which is vulnerable to storm surges during powerful cyclones.
Tropical Cyclone Pam is the strongest storm to make landfall since the devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013.
Pam boasts sustained winds of 165 mph (270 kilometers per hour) with gusts of up to 200 mph (325 kilometers per hour), not to mention “torrential” rainfall.
In its 3 a.m. Saturday (noon ET Friday) update, the Vanuatu Meteorological Services warned of “very destructive hurricane force winds” of 155 mph (250 kilometers per hour) in Shefa and Tafea provinces, with several others facing heavy ocean swells, flash flooding and landslides.
The agency said the storm was then positioned about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of Erromango, the next island in the chain, and 70 miles (113 kilometers) southeast of Efate.
Photographer Michael McLennan — who said the storm is being called the “Vanuatu Monster” — told CNN that the “strength of winds is incredible.”
Video footage he shot earlier Friday showed palm trees being whipped by wind and rain.
Evacuation alerts have been issued for several parts of the country.
The storm was expected to intensify as it heads southward, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The cyclone has also prompted storm warnings in other island nations.
Weak buildings, strong winds
Even before the sun rose Saturday, Vanuatu was already getting hit hard, with most communication and power cut off due to the storm.
“The wind outside is terrifying,” Michael Wolfe, World Vision’s national director in Vanuatu, told that humanitarian organization. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for families out there who weren’t able to find safe shelter before the storm.”
The archipelago nation contains 83 small islands, many of which have little infrastructure and lack the strong housing structures that can endure a walloping storm.
Because of the tropical climate in Vanuatu, some of the housing is made of lighter building materials, including straw and corrugated metals.
The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, said it was preparing for the worst.
“We simply don’t know what we are going to be looking at tomorrow morning,” spokeswoman Alice Clements told CNN, speaking from Vanuatu. “This point of the storm feels incredibly strong.”
Clements said it was reminiscent of what she felt during Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
“To that end, I’m incredibly worried about the amount of damage to shelters, the impact on life and casualties,” she said. “Schools will probably be damaged or destroyed, health centers will undoubtedly be flooded or damaged.
“This country is going to need some serious assistance from the international community because the storm is wreaking an awful lot of damage right now.”
Parts of Vanuatu will likely see floods exceeding 16 inches, according to forecasts.
Residents prepared for the storm, boarding up windows and chopping down trees that stand close to buildings in case they could become debris or cause further damage or injury.
World Vision, which says it’s been based in Vanuatu for more than 30 years, said its team was hunkered down in a concrete building waiting for the storm to pass.
As soon as it’s safe, its emergency assessment team will head out to assess the damage, it said.
World Vision staff has been trying to help prepare communities on the islands for the cyclone by positioning water, food, blankets, tarpaulins, and shelter, hygiene and kitchen kits in key places, it said, as well as advising on disaster preparedness.
Residents have been advised to seek shelter in places such as churches, universities and schools.
“The strongest thing they’ve got is cement churches,” said Inga Mepham, program director for CARE International for the Vanuatu program. “Some of them don’t have that. It’s hard to find a structure that you’d think would be able to withstand a Category 5 (storm).
“The cyclone’s coming through, but then we’ve probably got 48 hours of humongous tropical storms as well, which is going to dump a lot of rain on an area that’s been hit by a cyclone that may have a lot of damage.
“There’s a lot of risk right now, and there’s a lot of risk in the next four to five days as well.”
CNN host Bill Weir, who was recently in Vanuatu on assignment, said that while Port Vila has some modern development in the form of an airport, large hotels and a convention center that’s under construction, life on some of the islands has remained almost unchanged for thousands of years.
Those isolated communities are incredibly vulnerable to a storm such as Tropical Cyclone Pam, he said.
“For search and rescue, for bringing food and supplies and medicine, it’s extremely challenging,” he said.
Cyclone Pam has triggered watches and warnings in the Solomon Islands and New Zealand.
The storm is expected to weaken after leaving the Vanuatu island chain and could affect New Zealand’s North Island by late Sunday or Monday.