Strong winds felled trees as a powerful typhoon roared into the eastern Philippines on Saturday, bringing intense rain and threatening to wreak more destruction to areas still bearing the scars of a super typhoon 13 months ago.
More than half a million people had already fled to shelters ahead of Typhoon Hagupit making landfall, in what a U.N. agency said was one of the world’s biggest peacetime evacuations.
As the storm arrived, power was cut across most of the central Philippine island of Samar and nearby Leyte province, including Tacloban City, considered ground zero of the devastating super typhoon Haiyan last year.
“The wind is blowing so strongly, it’s like it is whirling,” Mabel Evardone, an official of the coastal town of Sulat in Eastern Samar, said on local radio. “The waters have risen now.” There was no word of any casualties.
Hagupit had weakened to a category 3 storm, two notches below “super typhoon”, but could still unleash huge destruction with torrential rain and potentially disastrous storm surges of up to 4.5 metres (15 ft), the weather bureau PAGASA said.
The eye of the typhoon was 55 km (35 miles) from the town of Dolores, Eastern Samar, around 8 p.m. (1200 GMT), PAGASA said.
“It is very, very close. What they are experiencing in that area is the impact of the eyewall, they are feeling the strongest winds brought by the typhoon,” weather forecaster Jori Loiz said on radio.
With winds of up to 175 kph (110 mph) near the centre and gusts of up to 210 kph (130 mph), the storm picked up speed as it moved north northwest at 16 kph (10 mph).
“Ruby’s lashing will be severe,” Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas told government radio, referring to the local name for Typhoon Hagupit. “Let’s be alert. Let’s evacuate to prevent any harm to your families.”
Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific cancelled about 100 flights to central and southern Philippines on Saturday.
More than 616,000 residents of low-lying villages and landslide-prone areas have fled to schools, civic centres, town halls, gyms and churches, the national disaster agency said.
At least 50 municipalities in the central Philippines and the southern part of the country’s main Luzon island were at risk of storm surges, with the eye of the storm set to cross four provinces, the Science and Technology department said.
The typhoon was unlikely to hit the capital Manila, home to around 12 million people, the agency said.
“Typhoon Hagupit is triggering one of the largest evacuations we have ever seen in peacetime,” said Denis McClean, spokesman of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.
Relief agency Refugees International said in a statement it was “deeply concerned” that evacuation centres may not be safe.
“A damage assessment of designated evacuation centres in typhoon-affected areas indicated that in some places – such as Eastern Samar, where Hagupit is headed – less than 10 percent of evacuation centres were likely to withstand future typhoons,” the group said.
The United States had offered to send nine C-130 transport aircraft, three P-3C Orion, and medical and relief workers, said Major Emmanuel Garcia, commander of the Armed Forces’ 7th civil relations group.
Other foreign governments also sent word they were ready to help the disaster-prone Southeast Asian nation, he said.
The islands of Samar and Leyte were worst-hit by 250 kph (155 mph) winds and storm surges brought by Typhoon Haiyan in November.
“There has been a tremendous amount of learning from last year,” said Greg Matthews, emergency response advisor at the International Rescue Committee.
“There have been reports from our field officers and partners that people are evacuating themselves. They are aware of the situation.”
Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall, left more than 7,000 dead or missing and more than 4 million homeless or with damaged houses. About 25,000 people in Eastern Samar and Leyte still live in tents, shelters and bunkhouses.
International humanitarian agencies and non-government groups, which have been supporting Haiyan-devastated communities in the central Philippines, are preparing to mobilize aid and relief efforts in the aftermath of Typhoon Hagupit.
Soldiers were deployed to urban centres, particularly in Tacloban City, where widespread looting broke out after Haiyan.
“The soldiers will help our police counterparts in maintaining peace and order, and prevent looting incidents,” said Colonel Restituto Padilla Jr, armed forces spokesman.
AccuWeather Global Weather Center said more than 30 million people would feel the impact of the typhoon across the Philippines.