A severe tropical cyclone that's causing destruction to Pacific Islands is edging closer to New Zealand.
Cyclone Pam is now a category 5 supercyclone, the biggest that had been seen in the Pacific in 30 years.
Vanuatu Meteorological Service director David Gibson said damaging winds of up to 200 km/h were expected to lash the island nation overnight.
"It's likely to reach very close to the central islands about 50 to 100 km east of the our main island Efate," he said.
"Hurricane force winds of this magnitude are going to cause a lot of damage," he said.
The course the cyclone was on was subject to change and it was too early to tell whether there would be loss of life, Mr Gibson said.
He said people had a lot of time to prepare, with warnings of the cyclone beginning last week.
New Zealanders in Vanuatu were scared and unsure of what they would find when they would leave their accommodation tomorrow.
Pam was upgraded to a Category 5 storm this morning.
Northeastern parts of New Zealand were advised to brace for destructive weather in days ahead as a result of Pam.
Raw video: Cyclone Pam begins to hit Vanuatu
"Using the most recent data the system is forecast to pass just to the east of East Cape during Monday," the MetService said yesterday evening.
"However, there is still a large degree of uncertainty in the exact path of the cyclone and although the centre may not pass over New Zealand, severe weather is likely to affect parts of the country - especially the northeast of the North Island."
Kiwis stranded on Tuvalu
A group of Kiwi power workers are stranded on the small Pacific island of Tuvalu after the boat that was due to pick them up this weekend was cancelled because of Super Cyclone Pam.
The team from Tauranga-based Powersmart are in Tuvalu on a solar project, and were due to move onto a different region this weekend - but the worst weather in 24 years had hampered their plans.
In a blog post, the team said they had been working six and a half day weeks for four weeks in order to finish in time for a scheduled ferry service, which would pick them up from Vaitupu on Saturday. They were due to move on to Nanumaga, another district of Tuvalu.
However, it was cancelled following "horizontal" rain and strong winds.
"Locals report that they've not seen weather like this since the storm of 1991," the blog's author Heather Logie said.
"Waves have been pushing higher all morning [Wednesday] sweeping rubbish up onto the streets. Two coconut trees have given way and come crashing down.
"There is no conceivable way that a little barge with a 40hp engine would make it through that harbour entrance unscathed. On a day like today, no ships will even be allowed to fix to Funafuti wharf; they are bobbing like corks in the middle of the lagoon."
Later on Wednesday afternoon the group went for a walk to inspect the damage, and reported seeing "pig pens washed away" and reinforcements being added to outdoor facilities.
"I've never seen waves like this," Ms Logie said. "My sandy, coconut tree covered, 2m high atoll, perched in the middle of this enormous ocean, feels very precarious right now."
The storm was also affecting power and communications, she said.
"And to top it all off, we are on diesel rations again. We are down to our last 235L of fuel and the generator will only come on for 3 hours tonight and then another 3 hours tomorrow morning.
"With it, our communications with the rest of the world, as the satellite uplink relies on the generator and reasonably clear skies."
Solomon Islands: buildings destroyed
Cyclone Pam has caused serious damage to the Solomon Islands, local broadcasts reported.
People were sheltering in caves, church buildings and schools according to Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC).
The news station reported that numerous buildings had been destroyed throughout the island nation.
In some villages trees were felled and crops swamped, meaning people's livelihood had been destroyed.
SIBC News reported that people would now have to rely on food supplies to be delivered to them by boat.
Warning for Hawke's Bay residents
Hawke's Bay Civil Defence has urged residents to get prepared for strong winds and heavy swells in coastal parts of the region, following a severe weather watch issued by MetService for Gisborne and the northern Hawkes Bay.
Group manager Ian Macdonald said people living in the area should use their weekend wisely and get prepared for potential bad weather.
"People need to make sure their family emergency plans are up to date, with their properties prepared for strong winds, and a getaway kit all ready - just in case."
Civil Defence would closely monitor the situation, he said, but latest reports put the storm passing just to the east of East Cape on Monday.
"However, there is still a lot of uncertainty around the exact path of the cyclone and although the centre may not pass over New Zealand, severe weather is likely to affect parts of the country - especially the northeast of the North Island."
Red alerts in Vanuatu
Cyclone Pam was already causing flooding in the capital Port Vila, officials said.
The Vanuatu Disaster Management Office issued red alerts for four provinces in the poor Pacific nation of 270,000 people, advising residents to shelter in evacuation centres.
Aid agencies said many people living in flimsy slum accommodation were particularly at risk.
Vanuatu's meteorology service said residents should still brace for winds of 165 kilometres per hour along with flash flooding, landslides and "very rough to phenomenal seas".
UNICEF spokeswoman Alice Clements said Port Vila resembled a "ghost town" as people battened down.
"Tonight is really the night we're going to find out," said the official with the UN children's agency.
"The winds have definitely increased, the palm trees are blowing around like crazy, you're starting to get that kind of howling wind coming through," she said.
Clements said there was little hope that the cyclone might make a late change of course and largely spare Vanuatu.
"They're super unpredictable but the centre of the storm is tracking really close by, so even if it's not a direct hit there's going to be really significant impacts," she said.
'This is a monster storm - we don't say that lightly'
MetService Meteorologist Georgina Griffiths last night said the eastern North Island could possibly get "the full trifecta" of impacts, these being damaging seas along the eastern coastline, gale to severe gale south-easterly winds, and the possibility of heavy rain.
WeatherWatch.co.nz reported yesterday evening that winds around the upper North Island, north of Auckland, were already caught up in the flow of Cyclone Pam, a few thousand km away.
"This is a monster storm - we don't say that lightly, a cyclone with this energy only comes down to New Zealand about once every 20 or 30 years. It's a positive sign that most reliable computer models are suggesting Pam will sideswipe north eastern New Zealand out to the east - but all North Islanders north of Waikato and Hawkes Bay should be closely monitoring the regular updates across the next few days," WeatherWatch analyst Philip Duncan told NewstalkZB.
Prepare for bad weather ahead
Graeme MacDonald, spokesman for the Northland Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) Group, advised residents in the region to keep "a close eye" on weather forecasts and conditions throughout the weekend, and prepare for bad weather ahead.
MetService today issued severe weather watches for both wind and rain in Northland, with a possibility of severe south to south-east gales on Sunday night and early Monday morning, he said.
Rain is expected to become heavy for eastern Northland from Sunday evening, with the possibility of more than 80mm falling over 18 hours.
Given the forecast, it would be prudent for Northlanders to take the usual precautions for strong winds and rain, Mr MacDonald said, including securing large heavy objects or anything that could be potentially dangerous.
He advised motorists to postpone any unnecessary travel plans particularly during the worst predicted weather, and yachties to check their moorings and ensure vessels are properly secured ahead of any storm.
However, Mr MacDonald urged people to keep things in perspective.
"At this stage, again probably the most sensible thing people can do is to remain calm and ensure they keep abreast of the latest forecasts, because things can obviously change for the worse."
Civil Defence would monitor the situation closely over the early part of the weekend, he said, update the public as required.
Conditions getting 'wilder by the minute'
Alice Clements from Unicef said conditions in the capital Port Vila were "getting wilder by the minute", as the storm begins to bear down on the island.
"[There's an] increase in rain, increase in wind, we're starting to hear the wind really starting to whistle through the buildings now," she told TV One's Breakfast programme this morning.
"Since about lunchtime yesterday Port Vila's pretty much been in lockdown, the town centre ... is boarded off and people are staying close to home."
Unicef would "prepare for the worst and hope for the best", she said.
"These storms can weaken and deviate, but at this point it really does look like it's coming straight at us."
She also warned of tsunami-like waves generated by the cyclone which could smash into Vanuatu's coastline, causing devastation similar to that wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013.
"They're not official tsunamis, they're what's called a storm surge and the possibility of really substantial and very strong winds, generated by waves, generated by the winds," she explained.
"We saw this with Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, and it behaved pretty much like a tsunami. It was a massive rush of water, and we ended up with a death toll well over 6000 in Haiyan as a result of that.
Warning for island nations
In an updated weather forecast, WeatherWatch said Vanuatu would today be "in the firing line" of Cyclone Pam, which it described as a "monster category 5 storm", which poses serious threat to lives and property in the next 24 hours.
"According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, winds from Pam may have sustained speeds of 280km/h at the centre with gusts over 330km/h," WeatherWatch said.
"It will slowly cross Vanuatu region today and considerable damage is likely."
Cyclone Pam passed by the east of the Solomon Islands overnight, causing heavy rainfall, strong winds, sea swells and sea surges, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The central and eastern provinces were hit the hardest, but there were no reports of injuries or deaths. Communication with at least one of the islands was down.
Vanuatu was now battening down the hatches in preparation for the huge cyclone, with the provinces of Torba, Penama, Sanma and Malampa expected to feel the most damaging affects, the agency said. There were forecasts of extremely damaging storm force or even destructive hurricane force winds for the central and southern parts of the country from midnight local time and into the weekend.
Rough seas, heavy swells, heavy rainfall and flooding are also expected.The Vanuatu National Disaster Management Authorities have deemed 262,000 people at risk from the cyclone.
"As the storm moves past Efate island around 8pm on 13 March [local time], its eye will be located approximately 145km east of the capital Port Vila, which has a population of some 44,000," OCHA said.
OCHA warned some island nations faced more trouble ahead after Pam as a separate tropical cyclone called Nathan intensified.
As Pam turned south, Nathan, already in the Coral Sea as a Category 2 cyclone, was expected to intensify and turn towards Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and possibly Vanuatu.
"This could have devastating effects for communities living in areas that have already experienced prolonged rains and other impacts from [Cyclone] Pam," OCHA said.
Strongest cyclone to form near Vanuatu in almost 30 years
Vanuatu meteorologist David Gibson, based in Port Vila, said it was the strongest cyclone to form near Vanuatu in almost 30 years. Cyclone Uma in 1987 caused widespread damage and loss of life.
Mr Gibson said the northern and central islands of Vanuatu were on alert, businesses had shut and evacuation centres were prepared.
The cyclone was expected to stay around northern Vanuatu islands today and move to the main island Efate, where the capital Port Vila is located, late tonight.
He said the warning covered "heavy raining and flooding of low-lying areas and areas close to riverbanks" and "damaging winds".
A New Zealander in Vanuatu said expatriates acted quickly to take cover from the storm.
Jeff Brown told Radio New Zealand he moved his family from a house to a motel near the capital Port Vila, fearing the house they lived in would not withstand the cyclone.
Understand the severity
Oxfam's Vanuatu country director Colin Collett van Rooyen said it was difficult to know how seriously local people were taking the warning of a category 5 storm.
"I think people are prepared for a weather event, but I'm not too sure about the extent to which they're prepared for the force of this particular event," he told TV3's Firstline from Port Vila.
People had told him 'nobody really knows what a category 5 does', he said.
"And I think that's a huge challenge, that people are prepared for a weather event, if they're aware of it, but not necessarily the extent, because that is something of a mystery."
Some people were already moving to cyclone shelters, he said, but communicating the warning of the on-coming storm was among the challenges facing aid workers in the Pacific island nation.
"One of the problems, or challenges, is getting information out to people about cyclone centres and also to get people to understand the severity of a category 5 cyclone in Vanuatu," he told the broadcaster.
"People are boarding up or have boarded up, their houses if they have cyclone shutters, businesses have shuttered their buildings up in the main, and information has been put out where possible. At the moment, regular radio bulletins, regular text messages across the two networks that we have here, and encouraging people to talk with their neighbours, their family, and to identify where they need to move to and to get supplies in because we don't know how long they might need to be in the shelter before they can actually get out safely."
His biggest fear for the impending storm was that people "don't actually understand the extent to which it is serious and don't prepare sufficiently", he said, followed by the possible damage to infrastructure.
'Everything's boarded up'
Cyclone Pam was already making itself felt in Vanuatu, Unicef said, with reports of heavy rain and damaging winds coming in.
"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," the agency's Pacific communications specialist Alice Clements said from her base in Port Vila.
"The town centre is deserted, everything's boarded up - from yesterday lunchtime onwards everyone has pretty much gone home to prepare and get themselves as ready as they can."
The New Zealander said one of her biggest concerns was for those living in remote and isolated communities in Vanuatu's 83 islands, as they are more likely to have homes built from weaker structures.
"They will be the ones most impacted should the full impact of this storm materialise as predicted."
According to Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office, red alerts were in place for several parts of the Vanuatu archipelago facing an imminent threat of storm damage, Unicef said, including Torba and Penama.
A yellow alert was in place for Sanma, Malampa, Shefa and Taefa.
Unicef New Zealand programmes manager Hamish Lindsay said: "During and in the aftermath of an emergency such as this, Unicef's priority is to ensure those that are most vulnerable, including children and pregnant women, are safe and protected.
"Unicef will continue to work closely with government agencies and partners in Vanuatu in order to ensure a coordinated response to the storm as it unfolds." Local weather reports forecasted a slow-burning storm, which would continue to escalate with the worst hitting Vanuatu on Friday night local time, Unicef said.
Kiwis bunker down in Port Vila
Kylie Steel is in Port Vila for a conference on oral health, which was cancelled when the yellow alert was issued yesterday.
Ms Steel said she and three other New Zealanders were today getting some last-minute supplies before they bunker down in their hotel.
The group bought extra wet-weather gear and shoes with the knowledge that they might be in a disaster zone when they leave their hotel tomorrow.
"We're aware that there might be a lot of debris and raw sewage and stuff like that," Ms Steel said.
She said the cyclone conditions hadn't yet arrived.
"To be honest, it's not even like a bad day in Wellington right now, but we're just very aware it will get very rough very soon."
The hotels, shops and businesses in Port Vila all had hoardings on their windows in preparation for cyclone Pam's arrival, which was expected to be about 6pm NZT.
Ms Steel said the hotel she was staying in was boarded up and people staying there had been told not to go outside until tomorrow morning.
"I feel safe and I feel like the guys I'm with are going to be safe. Our biggest risk is probably the ocean, because we're right on the water."
Ms Steel has been coming to Vanuatu since 2007 and said many communities had no structures to seek shelter within.
"I have got a relationship with over 500 families here in Vanuatu ... When you're saying go and find a safe building, but that doesn't really exist for them... there were a lot of tears on my behalf."
She said an island called Tanna, south of Efate, where Port Vila is located, was expected to be the worst hit.
Disruption to flights
So far only one flight from Auckland Airport had been affected by the cyclone, a spokesman said.
The Aircalin flight SB410 from Noumea, which was due to arrive at 12.40pm, was cancelled this morning.
A spokeswoman for Air New Zealand said flights to and from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia were currently operating as scheduled.
Flights in and out of Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu could be disrupted over the weekend and updates would be provided on their website, she said.
Flight Centre NZ Managing Director Chris Grieve said the travel agency was providing support to customers on islands affected by the cyclone.
"The resorts in the islands are used to cyclones and know how to prepare for these situations; we recommend those on the ground follow the advice of local authorities, seek suitable shelter and remain well away from the sea and rivers."
Mr Grieve said he didn't expect the cyclone would have a huge impact on travel to the islands.
"We may see disruption to flights but very few passengers will cancel and will instead simply postpone until travel resumes."
He said customers were advised to keep up to date with departure information by contacting airlines.
Unicef and World Vision prepare for a disaster
Unicef Pacific communications specialist Alice Clements said from Port Vila that the cyclone was expected to intensify during the day and peak tonight. "We expect it will have a strong impact on Vanuatu, including the capital of Port Vila."
World Vision said flooding was expected in low-lying areas. It had taken relief gear such as tarpaulins, blankets and shelter to Vanuatu.
World Vision aid worker Chloe Morrison from Melbourne was one of many New Zealand and Australian expatriates in Vanuatu preparing for the super-cyclone expected to hit the country later tonight.
"It's been quite a change in the past 24 hours," she said this morning.
"The cyclone itself has been updated to a Category 5. The temperature has dropped quite a bit and the wind has definitely picked up. Right now it's not raining, but it has been raining pretty consistently overnight and also this morning."
She went to a local supermarket in the capital Port Vila yesterday evening. The normally relaxed and quiet store was packed as people stocked up.
"It was chaos. There were people everywhere, stocking up on essential items like water, matches, rice..." she said. Ms Morrison said she was impressed to see bottles of water and candles still available but wondered when stocks would run out.
"It will of course be interesting to see the impact of the cyclone...and what that does mean for people's access to food."
She was in touch with New Zealander Peter Brown, who was on the southern island of Tanna. "I spoke to Peter yesterday and he described the conditions as being eerily quiet," she said.
Ms Morrison said the Kiwi was planning a move to higher ground. Ms Morrison said most buildings in rural areas, and Vanuatu's undeveloped outer islands, were relatively flimsy, simple structures not resistant to floods or gale-force winds.
"In terms of people's houses, they're very vulnerable to being washed or blown away."
Ms Morrison said fortunately, the first forecasts of a possible cyclone emerged a week ago."Everyone's very aware of the cyclone coming."
But the predicted intensity of the storm only became apparent more recently. Some evacuation centres were already established, with people heading to schools and churches.
"Around our office yesterday people were [saying] they've lost count of how many cyclones they've lived through. But a lot said they were quite concerned about this one. They were worried."
Ms Morrison said not many expatriates have left the country. Instead, many checked into hotels now approaching capacity.
"It's a bit strange being an aid worker here. It was only on Thursday that I really considered the fact I was going to have to prepare myself. So I'm actually going to a colleague's house...we've prepared a cyclone safe room at the back of the house, which is all boarded up with cyclone shutters."
Historical information: Cyclone Bola
Twenty seven years ago almost to the day New Zealanders were picking up the pieces from one of the most damaging - and costly-- cyclones in its history.
Cyclone Bola brought devastation when it hit in March 1988, including severe slips, erosion, an estimated $90 million in horticulture and farming losses, the forced evacuation of thousands and the death of three people whose car was swept away by floodwaters.
Bola formed on February 24, 1988 near Fiji and reached hurricane winds near Vanuatu four days later. It affected about 3000 houses and 15,000 residents.
Bola's southeasterly path was blocked by an anticyclone north of New Zealand, holding it in a roughly stationary position while it caused widespread damage to the country.
Bola hit Hawke's Bay and the Gisborne-East Cape region of the North Island on March 7, creating some of the heaviest rainfalls for a single storm in New Zealand's history.
A peak rainfall of 916 millimetres over the three days was recorded inland from Tolaga Bay. Other locations received more than half of their annual rainfall totals from the storm.
Winds of up to 100 kilometres an hour toppled trees and tore off roofs, while the torrential rain caused landslides, cut power and sewage services, and closed several roads.
States of emergency were declared in Wairoa, Gisborne and the East Cape.
Te Karaka township, inland from Gisborne, was almost flooded by the Waipoa River and it was feared Wairoa, in Hawke's Bay, would be inundated with overflow from nearby river banks.
Emergency and civil defence services evacuated 3000 people from Gisborne, 400 from Te Karaka, 300 from Wairoa. Horses had to be used to get some people not accessible by helicopter.
Northland was also affected by Bola. The region's main water supply was disrupted when the line carrying the water was washed away with a bridge, power and telephone lines were cut and a state of emergency was declared in Dargaville.
Almost 1800 farmers and about 3600 hectares of farming and horticultural land were affected.
The cost to the government was more than $111 million.
The departure of the yachts involved in the Volvo Ocean Race has been further put off because of the cyclone.
The earliest the fleet will be leaving Auckland bound for Brazil will now be Tuesday.
The yachts were meant to be leaving on Sunday, but the predicted impact of cyclone Pam has led organisers to delay the start of the leg.
- additional reporting by AFP