Thousands flee as typhoon hits eastern Philippines

AFP-JIJI

Tens of thousands of people in the Philippines sheltered in evacuation centers on Tuesday as a typhoon began to pound its eastern coast, with authorities warning of giant storm surges and heavy floods.

The eye of Typhoon Rammasun was set to strike the city of Legazpi in the eastern Bicol region in the early evening, with Manila and other heavily populated areas also expected to be hit early Wednesday, the state weather service said.

“We are preparing for the worst,” said Rafaelito Alejandro, civil defense chief of Bicol, an impoverished farming and fishing region of 5.4 million people.

More than 96,000 families have already moved to evacuation centers there, Social Welfare Minister Corazon Soliman told reporters in Manila.

“People on the coastal areas are evacuating because of the threat of storm surges,” said National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council spokeswoman Romina Marasigan, referring to giant waves dumped onto the shore by strong winds.

The Philippines is hit by about 20 major storms a year, many of them deadly. The Southeast Asian archipelago is often the first major landmass to be hit after the storms build above the warm Pacific Ocean waters.

Super Typhoon Haiyan unleashed 7-meter (23-foot) storm surges that devastated the coasts of the eastern islands of Samar and Leyte last year, killing up to 7,300 people in one of the nation’s worst ever natural disasters.

More than a thousand residents of Tacloban, a city in Leyte, fled to an indoor government stadium early Tuesday after the weather service warned of the threat of 3-meter waves hitting the coast.

“We’re terrified of storm surges,” mother of three Mary Ann Avelino, 26, said as her family sat on the cold concrete of the bleacher seats, watching puddles form on the floor from the leaky roof.

She said her family had temporarily abandoned a lean-to at the ruins of their coastal home to sit out the new typhoon on higher ground.

State weather forecaster Alczar Aurelio said Rammasun was forecast to hit Legazpi, a city of about 185,000 people, in the early evening Tuesday.

It was then forecast to sweep across around 350 kilometers (215 miles) to the northwest and hit Manila and its 12 million people on Wednesday morning, he added.

Heavy rain and strong winds pounded the Bicol coasts in the late afternoon, though there were no reports of casualties or damage, Joey Salceda, the governor of Albay province in Bicol, said over ABS-CBN television.

Rammasun is the first to make landfall since this year’s rainy season began in June, and authorities as well as local media were seeking to ensure all potentially impacted communities were well informed and prepared.

The state weather service upgraded Rammasun overnight Monday from a tropical storm into a typhoon as its wind speeds built over the Pacific.

Rammasun, which is Thai for “God of Thunder,” is expected to have gusts of up to 180 kilometers an hour when it makes landfall, according to the U.S. military’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

The government canceled most classes in Manila and Bicol on Tuesday, while dozens of domestic flights were also grounded.

The coast guard also shut down domestic shipping across Bicol and nearby areas, leaving more than 6,000 ferry passengers stranded, Social Welfare Minister Soliman said.