• Reuters


Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos returned on Monday to homes battered by a powerful typhoon, amid relief that a massive evacuation operation appeared to have minimized fatalities.

The death toll from Typhoon Hagupit stood at 21 on Monday, after more than a million people took shelter in evacuation centers across the central belt of the archipelago over the weekend to escape the fury of the Category 3 storm.

A year ago, Category 5 “super typhoon” Haiyan tore through the central Philippines leaving more than 7,000 dead or missing. This time the authorities took no chances and evacuated whole towns and villages in coastal and landslide prone areas.

“We’re happy that we’ve learned our lessons from our past experiences. This is a good sign,” said Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross.

Hagupit roared in from the Pacific on Saturday night, churning across Samar island and on to the smaller island of Masbate. Its effects were felt across the central Philippines, including Leyte island and the south of the main island Luzon.

“We saw that with preparation and being alert we prevented tragedy and harm, we took our countrymen away from harm,” Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas told a televised government disaster meeting in Samar. “It is sad to hear news of deaths, but this is very low, way below what the potential was.”

Despite the relief, a major operation remained to clear debris and get supplies to people left homeless or without power after the typhoon flattened houses and tore down power lines.

Delia Monleon, mayor of Jipapad, a town of 7,000 people in Eastern Samar province, said floodwaters were still preventing people from getting to their homes.

“Our problem is power, food is a problem because boats cannot leave,” said Monleon. “It was flooded yesterday so we can’t leave to look for food,” she said.

Proceso Alcala, the farm minister, said initial reports from areas where Hagupit had passed placed crop damage at more than 320 million pesos ($7.17 million), mostly rice.

Mayor Emiliana Villacarillo of Dolores, in Eastern Samar, the area where Hagupit first made landfall, said almost 100 percent of rice paddies in the town were submerged by floodwaters.

“Our farmers will have to go back to square one and plant again. We will need new seedlings,” she said.

Philippine military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Catapang told a news conference that two C-130 planes loaded with supplies, including food and water, flew on Monday to Borongan, Eastern Samar, after soldiers had cleared three airports, including Tacloban City.

More than 48,000 residents of Tacloban had fled to shelters, but damage to the city that was devastated by Haiyan in November last year was relatively minor.

“A lot of them have begun to go home. In Tacloban this morning, the sun is shining, people just started going back,” said Orla Fagan, spokeswoman and Asia-Pacific advocacy officer at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In Manila, financial markets, schools and some public officers were closed. People in low-lying areas and near waterways were moved to shelters.

Hagupit was downgraded from a typhoon to a tropical storm on Monday, with winds of up to 105 kph and gusts of up to 135 kph.

It hit the small islands of Romblon and Marinduque on Monday morning, and was on track to reach Batangas, on Luzon about 90 km south of Manila, later in the day, the Philippine weather bureau PAGASA said.

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