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Category 5 Cyclone Heads for Vanuatu

Map showing the path of Cyclone Pam over Vanuatu, near Australia

The impoverished Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is bracing for a close brush with a category five tropical cyclone, which is already causing flooding in the capital Port Vila, officials said.

The Vanuatu Disaster Management Office has issued red alerts in the nation of 270,000 people, with the center of the Cyclone Pam expected to pass 100 kilometers off the coast on Friday night, packing winds of nearly 200 kilometers per hour and heavy rain. Authorities are warning of landslides and very rough seas.

Officials have urged people living in the poorest slum areas to take refuge in storm shelters.

Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, said the capital city resembled a "ghost town" as residents braced for the full brunt of the cyclone.

"The weather has been getting progressively worse for the last two-and-a-half days,'' she said.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of some 80 islands located about 2,200 kilometers off the northeast coast of Australia.