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Greek civil protection authorities have been put on maximum alert after a Mediterranean cyclone made landfall, battering the west of the country and many of its popular Ionian islands.

Meteorologists predicted the storm, a rare weather phenomenon referred to as a “medicane” (Mediterranean hurricane), would pick up speed as it crossed the sea and moved south.

By mid-afternoon on Friday, emergency services were reporting countless calls from citizens trapped in cars along a stretch of highway in central Greece. A boat carrying dozens of migrants was stranded at sea, with coastguard officials saying high winds meant rescue boats were unable to approach the vessel.

Hurricane-force winds whipped the islands of Cephalonia, Zakynthos and Ithaca overnight, causing devastation but no known injuries. State-run TV showed footage of upturned boats, uprooted trees, and damaged homes, cars and rooftops. Beaches were dotted with broken loungers and umbrellas. In places it reported “the land had become sea”.

Local officials said flooding and power cuts were widespread, with many of the outages being attributed to fallen trees that the fire brigade was desperately trying to clear.

“The situation is especially difficult in Ithaki [Ithaca],” said the regional governor, Rodi Kratsa. “Until recently communication has been impossible. None of the island has electricity.”

Kefalonia’s mayor, Theofilos Michalatos, also reported extensive damage to homes, roads and water facilities with local authorities speaking of similar destruction in Zakynthos.

Greece’s national meteorological office issued a red alert for the Ionian isles, Peloponnese peninsula, central Greece and Euboea (Evia), warning of “severe rain and thunderstorms and gale-force winds” through the weekend. Crete, it said, would also be affected on Sunday.

Along the shores of western Greece on Friday, waves were described as 7 metres high. Later in the day, in the region of Fthiotida emergency services were inundated with calls to rescue citizens from flooded homes.

Likened to a hurricane more commonly seen in the Caribbean, the Ianos storm was expected to hit Athens on Friday evening into Saturday. Nearly half of the entire population of Greece lives in the greater Athens area, with parts of the capital particularly prone to flooding.

People were advised by Greece’s deputy citizens protection minister to remain indoors. Those living in basement or ground floor flats were warned to find alternative accommodation. Avoiding all but essential travel was recommended.

Meteorologists had feared the Mediterranean cyclone could be one of the fiercest on record although initially it appeared milder than estimated. Weather forecasters said because sea surface temperatures were warmer in the Mediterranean it made it easier for wind speeds to become more intense.

Tropical-style storms in the region are rare but likely to increase along with other extreme weather events on account of the climate emergency, experts warn.

Greece was hit by a similar storm in 2018. A year earlier, flash floods left 25 people dead and hundreds homeless in western Athens with the mayor of Mandra, the area worst affected, describing the disaster at the time as “biblical”. Many of the victims were elderly people whose bodies were subsequently found inside their homes.