The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a release late Friday there were unconfirmed reports of deaths in Vanuatu's northeastern islands after Cyclone Pam moved off its expected track.

The Category 5 cyclone had average wind speeds of up to 270 kph (168 mph), with gusts up to 340 kph (210 mph), according to the office. It said the periphery of the eye of the storm had passed over islands that are home to several thousand people and was expected to hit or come close to the island of Efate, home to the capital, Port Vila.

Located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii, Vanuatu has a population of 267,000 spread over 65 islands. About 47,000 people live in the capital. The tiny Pacific island nation has repeatedly warned it is already suffering devastating effects from climate change with the island's coastal areas being washed away, forcing resettlement to higher ground and smaller yields on traditional crops.     

Vanuatu had earlier issued a red alert to its residents, urging them to take shelter from Pam.

Authorities said they feared the cyclone would destroy homes as well as cause landslides and severe coastal flooding. The cyclone has already destroyed some homes and caused damage to other Pacific islands including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.

David Gibson, acting director of the Vanuatu meteorology and geo-hazards department, said the winds could cause severe damage to the nation's buildings.

Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for relief agency UNICEF who is in Port Vila, said earlier on Thursday the capital was like a ghost town as people took shelter. She said the pelting rain was blown horizontally by the wind.

Clements also said large seas had caused significant flooding in remote and low-lying Kiribati.

The media reported several homes and a school classroom were destroyed and crops were flooded.

Authorities in New Zealand are preparing for the storm, which is forecast to pass north of the country on Sunday and Monday.

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