SYDNEY/PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Reuters) - A cyclone bearing down on New Caledonia in the South Pacific was upgraded on Monday to a category five storm, the most destructive wind-speed level, prompting local authorities to order people to stay indoors and take shelter.
Gusts close to the center of Cyclone Donna were estimated to be as strong as 300 km per hour (186 mph), according to the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-hazards department, with the storm projected to make landfall late on Tuesday.
"There is enormous uncertainty about the speed and trajectory of Donna at the moment, we are unable to tell people how long they will have to stay at home for," Olivier Ciry, a spokesman at the Civil Defense and Risk Management agency told Reuters by telephone.
The storm has whipped up huge swells in the Coral Sea, with the center roughly 200 km north of New Caledonia, and 350 km west of the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila. It was moving southeast at about 12 km (7.5 miles)per hour.
Schools in New Caledonia were closed for a public holiday on Monday and would stay shut on Tuesday. Domestic flights inNew Caledonia and further north in Vanuatu have been canceled.
Over the weekend the storm skirted to the west of Vanuatu, sparing the most heavily populated islands from any significant damage.
A Reuters journalist in Port Vila said there was torrential rain and hotel staff had given guests candles and matches in case there was a blackout and as well as a sheet to cover windows that might shater in the gales.
Donna is the third late-season cyclone to sweep through the Pacific, after storms called Debbie and Cook pounded Australia and New Zealand. [nL3N1H45SS][nL3N1HI1ST]
Stephen Meke, a senior forecaster at the Fiji Meteorological Service told Reuters it was "very unusual" to see such a powerful storm well after the summer months have passed, but there was not enough information to determine if climate change was a reason.
New Caledonia is one of the world's largest sources of nickel, and mining and metals processing plays a major role in the economy. Its main nickel producers, Societe Le Nickel, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Eramet, Glencore Plc and Vale, were not immediately available for comment.
Reporting Cecile Lefort in SYDNEY and Jill Gralow in PORT VILA. Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook and Jim Regan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore