World's most powerful typhoon hits Philippines

MANILA - The strongest typhoon this year slammed into the central Philippines on Friday, setting off landslides and knocking out power and communication lines in several provinces. At least four people died.

A resident walks past high waves pounding the sea wall as Typhoon Haiyan hits the city of Legaspi in Albay province, south of Manila on Friday (AFP Photo).

Huge, fast-paced Typhoon Haiyan raced across a string of islands from east to west - Samar, Leyte, Cebu and Panay - and lashed beach communities with winds of more than 200 kilometres per hour. Nearly 720,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes.

Because communications were cut off, it was impossible to know the full extent of casualties and damage. At least two people were electrocuted in storm-related accidents, one person was killed by a fallen tree and another was struck by lightning, official reports said.

Southern Leyte Governor Roger Mercado said the super typhoon triggered landslides that blocked roads, uprooted trees and ripped roofs off houses around his residence.

The dense clouds and heavy rains made the day seem almost as dark as night, he said.

"When you're faced with such a scenario, you can only pray, and pray and pray," Mercado told The Associated Press by telephone, adding that mayors in the province had not called in to report any major damage.

"I hope that means they were spared and not the other way around. My worst fear is there will be massive loss of lives and property."

Weather officials said Haiyan had sustained winds of 235 kph with gusts of 275 kph when it made landfall. That makes it the strongest typhoon this year, said Aldczar Aurelio of the government's weather bureau.

Eduardo del Rosario, head of the disaster response agency, said a typhoon of similar strength that hit the Philippines in 1990 killed 508 people and left 246 missing, but this time authorities had taken pre-emptive evacuation and other measures to minimise casualties.

A house is engulfed by the storm surge brought about by typhoon Haiyan in Legazpi city in Albay province, 520 kilometrtes south of Manila. (AP Photo)

The Philippines, which is hit by about 20 typhoons and storms a year, has in recent years become more serious about preparations to reduce deaths. Public service announcements are more frequent as are warnings issued by the president and high-ranking officials, regularly carried on radio and TV and social networking sites.

Provincial governors and mayors have taken a hands-on approach during crises, supervising evacuations, inspecting shelters and efforts to stockpile food and relief supplies.
Forecasters said it was expected to move out over water south of Mindoro island Friday evening and into the South China Sea on Saturday, heading toward Vietnam.

Among the evacuees were thousands of residents of Bohol who had been camped in tents and other makeshift shelters after a magnitude-7.2 earthquake hit the island province last month.

Jeff Masters, a former hurricane meteorologist who is meteorology director at the private company Weather Underground, said the storm was poised to be the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded at landfall. He warned of "catastrophic damage".

But he said the Philippines might get a small break because the storm is so fast-moving that flooding from heavy rains - usually the cause of most deaths from typhoons in the Philippines - may not be as bad.

The US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center said shortly before the typhoon made landfall that its maximum sustained winds were 314 kph, with gusts up to 379 kph. Those measurements are different than local weather data because the US Navy centre measures the average wind speed for 1 minute while local forecasters measure the average for 10 minutes.

Hurricane Camille, a powerful 1969 storm, had wind speeds that reached 305 kph at landfall in the United States, Masters said.

President Benigno Aquino III assured the public of war-like preparations, with three C-130 air force cargo planes and 32 military helicopters and planes on standby, along with 20 navy ships.

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