One of the most intense typhoons on record whipped the Philippines on Friday, killing three people and terrifying millions as monster winds tore roofs off buildings and giant waves washed away flimsy homes.
Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) smashed into coastal communities on the central island of Samar, about 600 kilometers southeast of Manila, before dawn on Friday with maximum sustained winds of about 315 kilometers an hour.
“We’ve had reports of uprooted trees, very strong winds. . . and houses made of light materials being damaged,” Philippine Red Cross chief Gwendolyn Pang told Agence France-Presse on Friday afternoon as Yolanda swept across the archipelago’s central and southern islands.
The government said three people had been confirmed killed and another man was missing after he fell off a gangplank in the central port of Cebu.
But the death toll was expected to rise, with authorities unable to immediately contact the worst affected areas and Yolanda only expected to leave the Philippines in the evening.
“The winds were so strong that they flattened all the banana plants around the house,” university student Jessa Aljibe, 19, told Agence France-Presse by telephone from the Samar city of Borongan shortly after Yolanda made landfall.
All telephone contact to the island was later lost as the typhoon moved inland.
“We have put rescue teams and equipment at different places, but at the moment we can’t really do much because of the heavy rain and strong winds. There is no power,” said Pang, the Red Cross official.
An average of 20 major storms or typhoons, many of them deadly, batter the Philippines each year.
The developing country is particularly vulnerable because it is often the first major landmass for the storms after they build over the Pacific Ocean.
The Philippines suffered the world’s strongest storm of 2012, when Typhoon Pablo (international name: Bopha) left about 2,000 people dead or missing on the southern island of Mindanao.
But Yolanda’s wind strength made it one of the four most powerful typhoons ever recorded in the world, and the most intense to have made landfall, according to Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology at US-based Weather Underground.
Yolanda’s generated wind gusts of 379 kilometers an hour on Friday morning, according to the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center.
Masters said the previous record for the strongest typhoon to make landfall was Hurricane Camille, which hit Mississippi in the United States with sustained winds of 190 miles an hour in 1969.
The US expert said he expected the damage in Guiuan, a fishing town of about 40,000 people that was the first to be hit on Friday, to be “catastrophic”.
Communication lines with Guiuan remained cut off in the afternoon, and the civil defense office said it was unable to give an assessment of the damage there.
In Tacloban City, a nearby city of more than 200,000 people, corrugated iron sheets were ripped off roofs and floated with the wind before crashing into buildings, according to video footage taken by a resident.
Flash floods also turned Tacloban’s streets into rivers, while a photo from an ABS-CBN television reporter showed six bamboo houses washed away along a beach more than 200 kilometers to the south.
Preparing for disaster
President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Thursday had warned his compatriots to make all possible preparations for Yolanda.
“To our local officials, your constituents are facing a serious peril. Let us do all we can while [Yolanda] has not yet hit land,” he said in a nationally televised address.
More than 125,000 people in the most vulnerable areas had been moved to evacuation centers before Yolanda hit, according to the national disaster management council, and millions of others huddled in their homes.
Authorities said schools in the storm’s path were closed, ferry services suspended and flights cancelled.
In the capital Manila, which was on the northern edge of the typhoon’s path, many schools were closed amid forecasts of heavy rain.
One particularly vulnerable area in Yolanda’s path was the central island of Bohol, the epicenter of a 7.1-magnitude earthquake last month that killed 222 people.
At least 5,000 survivors were still living in tents on Bohol, and they were moved to schools that had been turned into evacuation centers.
The Philippine government and some scientists have said climate change may be increasing the ferocity and frequency of storms.
Masters said warm Pacific waters were an important reason for the strength of Yolanda, but said it was premature to blame climate change based on the scanty historical data available. AFP