The super-storm Cyclone Pam is cutting a swathe through the South Pacific, with Vanuatu bracing itself for a direct hit tonight.
Updates for New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu
Cyclone Pam is edging ever closer to Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, bringing destructive winds to the country's most populated region.
Reports from the northernmost parts of Vanuatu indicate conditions have eased as the cyclone moved south, but the fear now is that the central provinces of Penama and Malampa are bearing the brunt of an intensifying storm.
MetService in Vanuatu said winds of up to 230 kilometres an hour were being recorded in some provinces, with winds of 185 kilometres an hour expected in the capital.
Cyclone Pam has been moving in a south southwest direction in recent hours at 13 kilometres an hour and on its forecast path is expected to pass near or over the capital in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The Category 5 storm has passed through the provinces of Torba, Penama and Malampa over Friday, although a cyclone warning remains in effect with forecast high winds, heavy rains and rough seas.
Meanwhile, Unicef in Vanuatu says it has unconfirmed reports of deaths in the outer islands from Cyclone Pam.
However authorities have been unable to contact many parts of the country.
A Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office spokesperson, Mishaen Garae Lulu said cellphone and other networks appeared to be down, and it has been difficult to collect other information from the northern provinces.
Mr Lulu said about 50 people died when Cyclone Uma struck in 1987, and he was expecting Pam's impact on the country to be worse.
Up to 4000 people across Vanuatu have taken refuge in shelters such as concrete churches and schools. Of those, 1000 are in shelters in the capital, Port Vila.
"We have evacuated over 1000 people to different evacuation centres and we've just called off that process at the moment," Mr Lulu said.
"We are delivering some basic rations to the evacuation centres, and that is in process at the moment."
Mr Lulu said the storm was expected to be at its worst early tomorrow morning.
Cyclone Pam slammed into Solomon Islands overnight, affecting more than 3000 households, and destroying some homes.
The country's disaster management office said the islands of Tikopia and Anuta took the full force of the storm, with Tikopia losing 90 percent of its crops.
However, it was still too dangerous to get emergency supplies to the island by sea.
Phone and radio connection with neighbouring Anuta was down and it was not yet known how people fared there.
In Tuvalu, a state of emergency has been declared after tidal surges caused by Cyclone Pam to the southwest washed away houses and crops.
The Red Cross has begun its emergency response and is distributing emergency supplies to those affected, a spokesperson said.
'Very destructive and very powerful'
In Vanuatu, destructive winds and very rough seas have been forecast for the entire country, along with torrential rain that is likely to cause flooding and landslides.
Vanuatu Meteorological Services is forecasting very destructive hurricane-force winds of up to 185 kilometres an hour in the country's capital Port Vila and wider Shefa Province as the storm moves past .
It is then expected to move south to Tafea Province, which could take a direct hit late tonight or early tomorrow.
Port Vila - a city of about 40,000 people that sits just above sea level - has spent today in lockdown in anticipation, with villagers boarding up windows and putting extra nails into loose roofing and walling.
Schools, markets and government offices have shut and people were told to move away from rivers and the coast. Residents said the wind picked up intensity after 4pm, with trees beginning to be uprooted.
Radio New Zealand International's correspondent in Port Vila, Hilaire Bule, said authorities had been evacuating people from coastal settlements since yesterday.
Police have advised people thinking of moving to evacuation centres not to go out in strong winds.
Meanwhile, Tafea Province councillor Joe Mete, who is on Tanna Island, 140 kilometres south of Port Vila, said locals were aware of the seriousness of their situation with the supercyclone approaching, and were doing their best to prepare for its arrival.
"What else can we do? It is a natural disaster and this one is very destructive and very powerful," he said.
"I think people will just do what they can to protect themselves and the only thing is people are praying for whatever comes."
Mr Mete said apart from permanent building structures, there were cave systems on Tanna and Erremango that people may use to shelter from the worst of the storm.
Evergreen Resort manager John Nicholls, also on Tanna Island, has been preparing for a week and has a concrete bunker to shelter in.
Mr Nicholls told Checkpoint many of the locals were not so lucky, and would hide under banyan trees.
He said there was only one doctor on the island, and if the cyclone hit with full fury, he expected there would be fatalities.
Relief agencies gear up
This morning, National Disaster Management Office acting director Peter Korisa said officials were setting up evacuation centres and distributing supplies as the country locked down.
"We are ordering people - especially from the informal settlements outside the city - to move into a safe area and good buildings where they can stay safe from the cyclone.
"Our job at the moment is trying to arrange the evacuation centres."
Mr Korisa said the storm began to bear down on Torba late last night, forcing at least 300 people to evacuate from their homes.
"I think it's too early to get the impact report or damage report, we advise them to move to a safer area, a safer house; especially people living in very vulnerable traditional buildings. They need to find a good building where they can be safe."
Mr Korisa told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme evacuations from vulnerable areas had begun and about 1000 people had been moved.
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the damage was likely to be far wider than the loss of homes and crops.
Its head, Sune Gudnitz, said a lot of aid would be needed.
"If the assumptions come to fruition - which is more than 200,000 people affected one way or another in Vanuatu alone, that's the planning figure currently from the Vanuatu side - then, yes, it will be a very big relief effort," he said.
"We're talking about a large percentage of the country's population in a great geographic area that are being affected one way or another."
Shortage of adequate shelter - UNICEF
A UNICEF worker said many people in Vanuatu were without proper shelter as the storm system approached.
Alice Clements, who is in Port Vila, said adequate shelter was scarce because even public buildings were vulnerable, including the hospital, which floods regularly.
"There's a problem with the lack of suitable shelters here. So people are scared and they're not entirely confident, necessarily, that the shelters that they're in are appropriate to see them through the storm."
Ms Clements said Civil Defence was using telephone relays to reach disaster committees on some of Vanuatu's 83 islands but many phone lines were down already.
World Vision evacuated its Port Vila offices early yesterday afternoon and sent all staff home. The charity's liaison officer in Vanuatu, Chloe Morrison, told Morning Report there were many vulnerable communities where people were in insecure housing, and in flood-prone, low-lying areas.
"The structures are not safe from flooding let alone a cyclone," she said.
New Zealander Jeff Brown moved his family into a motel closer to Port Vila last night, fearing his home would not withstand the cyclone.
"My house, I built it myself, I'm not sure that it'll stand the force of the wind that's going to come so we've moved in to a motel in town which is a concrete structure backed into a fairly substantial hill face."
Meanwhile, to the southeast in Fiji, schools have been ordered to close and the military has been deployed across the country to help with any response, while in New Caledonia, people have been advised to prepare emergency supplies.