LONDON (REUTERS) - A massive storm is bearing down on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, bringing with it gusts of up to 240kmh and putting nearly 250,000 people at risk, aid agencies said on Friday.
Vanuatu has urged residents to seek shelter as Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest seen in the region, threatens to bring destructive winds, rough seas and the potential for storm surges, flash floods and landslides.
"The immediate concern is for a very high death toll but also an enormous amount of destruction and devastation," Sune Gudnitz, head of the Pacific office at UNOCHA, the UN's emergency relief arm, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from nearby Fiji, which is also bracing for the impact of Pam.
The Vanuatu Meteorological Services warned of "very destructive winds and very rough to phenomenal seas with heavy swells."
The government has issued red alerts for the entire country.
Gudnitz said the government of Vanuatu had made emergency plans for more than 220,000 people - asking them to seek shelter in churches and schools.
About one sixth of the population live in the capital Port Vila, which suffered flooding and power cuts on Friday as the cyclone started to bear down on the town.
Gudnitz said there had been no reports of casualties or loss of life yet but OCHA said in a statement on Friday there were unconfirmed reports that 44 people had died in Penama province in the north-east.
The Category 5 storm could destroy many homes in the poor island nation of 260,000 people as many of them were constructed with flimsy materials such as straw and corrugated metal, and were vulnerable to high winds and floods, aid workers said.
"Their plantations are usually the first to be destroyed so this would have a major impact on their livelihoods," said Lesi Korovavala, Vanuatu representative of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Authorities and aid agencies were bracing for a huge cleanup and urgent medical needs as the storm passes.
Priorities would include ensuring drinking water was safe and that children could go to school, the United Nations children's agency UNICEF said.
Flash floods and strong winds have also hit Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, causing significant damage.
"This ... shows just how much the Pacific region needs investment and support for effective risk reduction measures against cyclones, perhaps more than any other place in the world," said Aurelia Balpe, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the Pacific.