Suva - A terrifying tropical cyclone has smashed into Vanuatu in the South Pacific, leaving ‘complete devastation’, with dozens reportedly dead in what may be one of the region's worst weather disasters.
The full extent of the damage is unknown, with limited communications in place after Super Cyclone Pam, a maximum category five storm, slammed directly into the island country late on Friday with gusts up to 320km/h.
The UN had unconfirmed reports of 44 people killed in one province.
"While it is too early to say for certain, early reports are indicating that this weather disaster could potentially be one of the worst in Pacific history," Unicef New Zealand's executive director Vivien Maidaborn said in a statement.
"The sheer force of the storm combined with communities just not set up to withstand it, could have devastating results for thousands across the region."
Residents of the capital Port Vila spent the night bunkering down as the terrifying storm raged, waking to find trees had been uprooted, homes destroyed and areas flooded.
"The scene here this morning is complete devastation - houses are destroyed, trees are down, roads are blocked and people are wandering the streets looking for help," said Save the Children's Tom Skirrow, speaking from Port Vila.
"We could see some loss of life, potentially serious loss but we don't know yet," Sune Gudnitz, who heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Pacific, told AFP.
"The feedback is that there appears to be quite widespread devastation. There is debris in the streets and widespread flooding."
Unicef spokesperson Alice Clements described the cyclone as "15-30 minutes of absolute terror" for "everybody in this country" as it passed over.
"We have some very unconfirmed reports of casualties from the outer islands as well but we're waiting to get official confirmation on those, which is very sad news if it's true," she told Radio New Zealand.
Added Care International's Charlie Damon: "Homes have been blown to pieces, and even evacuation shelters, where people had sought refuge, have been flooded and left exposed to Cyclone Pam.
"If this is the level of impact in communities where emergency shelters were an option, we are deeply concerned about what has happened in remote communities without them."
Aid agencies launch appeals
The storm crossed the main Vanuatu island, home to more than 65 000 people, and a group of islands further south where 33 000 live after impacting on the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, where there were no reports of fatalities.
Red Cross Pacific regional head Aurelia Balpe told AFP that in one southern part of Vanuatu, islanders packed into caves and other makeshift shelters as they resorted to "traditional coping strategies".
Also read: Flooding in Vanuatu as cyclone hits its maximum strength
During the night, the administrator of the Humans of Vanuatu Facebook page wrote: "It's really bad out there. The wind is howling with a deep roar that just doesn't let up. Anyone not in shelter now is in mortal danger."
Aid agencies have launched appeals and are hoping to start flying in emergency supplies of food, shelter and medicine from Sunday, when the airport in Port Vila is expected to reopen.
"We are extremely concerned for the safety and wellbeing of tens of thousands of people as one of the most intense cyclones to ever hit any Pacific country continues to batter Vanuatu," said Australian Red Cross' head of international programmes Peter Walton.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, speaking from Japan, said while the impact was not yet clear "we fear the destruction and damage would be widespread" as he offered his deepest condolences to the people of Vanuatu.
Fiji Weather Service meteorologist Neville Koop said the cyclone was weakening as it slowly moved away from Vanuatu, and would pass between Fiji and New Caledonia before brushing the North Island of New Zealand on Monday.
Koop said Pam was not the strongest cyclone for the South Pacific, with Zoe packing bigger winds when it hit Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in 2002. But he said the current storm had gusts of 320km/h and sustained winds of 250km/h.
Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that Canberra was ready to assist, and had medical and search and rescue staff on standby while New Zealand immediately announced NZ$1m in an initial funds to assist Vanuatu, Fiji, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.