More than a quarter of a million people were under threat from a Category 5 cyclone smashing its way through an island nation in the South Pacific on Friday. Cyclone Pam was packing sustained winds of up to 160 mph and was on course for a direct hit on Vanuatu's capital city of Port Villa, meteorologists said.
The country's National Disaster Management Office put the capital on lockdown. Most of the country was suffering power outages and tens of thousands were forced to abandon their homes and seek shelter in evacuation centers and hotels, the NDMO said. The Weather Channel said Cyclone Pam was set to be one of the worst natural disasters in Vanuatu's history. To give an idea of Pam's relative power, satellite estimates suggested it was more intense than all but two Atlantic hurricanes on record. Weather Channel senior meteorologist Matt Crowther said the storm was "very bad news" for Vanuatu.
The eye of the storm was mere miles away from Port Villa at 11 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET).
"We are currently getting some very destructive weather," NDMO coordinator Paolo Malatu said. Although the whole of Vanuatu was in the dark, according to Malatu, he spoke to NBC News from Port Villa via telephone using the NDMO’s emergency generator. "The cyclone is currently hitting us with very strong force," he said.
"The weather is getting wilder by the minute and the capital, like much of the rest of the country, remains in a state of lockdown," UNICEF spokeswoman Alice Clements in a statement. UNICEF said some 260,000 people were at risk from the storm. "One of our biggest concerns at the moment is for those in the remote and isolated communities of Vanuatu’s 83 islands who are more likely to have homes with weaker structures," Clements added.