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Tropical Cyclone Pam thrashes Vanuatu with direct hit as a Category 5

Amateur video shows some of the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam that hit the Pacific island nation packing winds of more than 186 mph. (Video: Reuters)

Tropical Cyclone Pam, a monster storm in the South Pacific, is thrashing the capital island of Vanuatu in the dead of night, in what has turned out to be the nightmare scenario for the tiny island nation that faces some of the most pressing worries from rising sea levels and climate change.

Home to around 66,000 people, the island of Efate and Vanuatu’s capital city Port Vila were enduring a direct hit from the cyclone’s eye wall Friday night, local time. Pam was forecast to track about 100 miles east of the island, which would have spared Vanuatu of the most serious impacts.

A powerful cyclone hit the Pacific islands of Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu, destroying some homes and causing extensive damage. The Category 5 cyclone had average wind speeds of 155 mph to 167 mph, with gusts up to 211 mph, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (Video: The Washington Post)

Unfortunately, the cyclone has been bucking the forecast on a more westward path for a couple of days now, and Vanuatu is paying the price as it swipes Efate at what appears to be its peak intensity.

Pam’s sustained winds are up to 165 mph, with gusts nearing 200 mph, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The weather station at the airport in Port Vila went offline around 8 p.m. local time, 5 a.m. Eastern Time. Its last report was rapidly falling pressure and sustained winds of 46 mph. Now that Efate is essentially in the eye wall of the cyclone, those measurements have likely at least doubled, if not tripled.

The hurricane-chasing team “iCyclone” is in Vanuatu and providing and seeking reports on Facebook. Some people on Vanuatu have been able to post replies via mobile service, but there has been widespread power loss. “I am in Port Vila,” one Facebook user writes. “The power is off. Water cut off for some houses. Wind is terrifying.”

Another report from Port Vila: “Just got a text from a friend an hour ago in Malapoa, his roof has gone is being flooded and is burying himself in the mud under the foundations to try and stay put. We have a house in Vila and are assuming it will be gone by morning. Please pray for them. This is unbelievable — all other comms are out.”

The Facebook page Humans of Vanuatu, which typically shares the everyday lives of Vanuatuans, has been providing updates on the cyclone since earlier this week.

Around 10 p.m. Vanuatu time, the Humans of Vanuatu Facebook page signed off after the Internet went out.

Mashable’s Andrew Freedman writes that Vanuatu is particularly susceptible to natural disasters:

A recent report on natural disaster vulnerability found that Port Vila is the most exposed city to natural disasters of any of the 1,300 cities studied. The Natural Hazards Risk Atlas, published by the British analytics company Verisk Maplecroft, found that Port Vila is at risk for earthquakes, tsunamis and tropical cyclones.
Global warming-related sea level rise is leading to more damaging coastal flooding in island nations such as Vanuatu. The country is one of a bloc of small island states lobbying industrialized nations to undertake steep carbon emissions reductions to avert the most significant impacts of global warming. Other members of the small island alliance also were effected by Cyclone Pam, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.

Pam has been strengthening into a monster since Tuesday, when it rapidly intensified from the equivalent of a category 2 to a category 4 in under 24 hours. Since then it has slowly continued to gain strength, reaching category 5 status on Thursday. Recent unofficial satellite analysis suggests Pam’s central pressure is down to an astonishingly low 890 millibars, with winds up to 177 mph.

Tropical Cyclone Pam is the strongest of four cyclones in the midst of a very active period on the other side of the globe. Tropical Cyclone Nathan, which is currently spinning just off the coast of Queensland, Australia, is expected to strengthen into a Category 2 as it tracks east over the weekend. Though the storm is likely to weaken after that, the remnant system may bring heavy rain to Vanuatu on Monday and Tuesday.