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Deadly Cyclone Pam hits Pacific islands, with dozens feared dead in Vanuatu

A powerful cylone has swept through the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. The UN says it is gravely concerned, with unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths in northeastern Vanuatu.

The Category 5 storm, named Cyclone Pam, swept through the Vanuatu island chain overnight into Saturday with 278 kilometer (168 mile) -per-hour winds. The storm triggered flash flooding and knocked out power and running water in Vanutau's capital, Port Vila.

The UN says the cyclone could be one of the worst ever weather disasters for the Pacific.

"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," said Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of UNICEF New Zealand.

"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," Maidaborn added.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said there was an unconfirmed report that 44 people had died in northeastern Vanuatu's Penama province.

"Vanuatu is a very vulnerable place because of its location in the middle of the ocean," said Gudnitz.

"It is possible that there will be a death toll that could be high. I can't give any numbers. I think it is a well-grounded fear."

Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific island nation of 267,000 people, lies about a quarter of the way between Australia's east coast and Hawaii.

Chloe Morrison, an aid worker in Port Vila, told news agency AP she had heard reports that entire villages had been destroyed in remote areas.

"It's still really quite dangerous outside. Most people are still hunkering down," she said.

"The damage is quite extensive in Port Vila but there are so many more vulnerable islands. I can't even imagine what it's like in those vulnerable communities."

One person was confirmed dead in Papua New Guinea. The storm has also affected the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for the storm, forecast to pass north of the country on Sunday and Monday.

jr/bw (Reuters, AFP, AP)