x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Thousands flee as Philippines on typhoon alert

Thousands of people in the northern Philippines are ordered out of their homes as the country braced for a super typhoon with gusts of up to 260kph.

Philippine troops prepare rubber boats to be used for rescue missions yesterday, east of Manila.
Philippine troops prepare rubber boats to be used for rescue missions yesterday, east of Manila.

BEIJING // Thousands of people in the northern Philippines were ordered out of their homes yesterday as the country braced for a super typhoon with gusts of up to 260kph.

Typhoon Megi was expected to hit Cagayan province in Luzon island this morning, battering the region with possibly its strongest winds since Typhoon Durian in 2006 set off mudslides that killed about 1,000 people.

Several thousand people in areas most vulnerable to flooding, landslides and storm surges had their homes evacuated, while all those living in the path of the typhoon were told to stock up on food and medicine.

The authorities have also been stockpiling supplies and rescue equipment amid fears of landslides and storm surges in coastal areas. Officials have said trees could be uprooted, houses made of light material blown away, and communications and power supplies interrupted.

Schools have been closed, fishermen banned from going to sea where waves were as high as 14 metres, and families told to stay indoors and have at least one person awake at all times in case of emergency.

"This is like preparing for war," said Benito Ramos, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. "We know the past lessons and we're aiming for zero casualties."

Megi is the 10th tropical storm to hit the Philippines this year, and the strongest so far. Typically, about 20 typhoons hit the archipelago each year, many causing fatalities.

In July, Typhoon Conson killed 102 people and damaged or destroyed more than 70,000 homes after it unexpectedly changed course and struck unprepared Manila. The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, later sacked the country's chief weather forecaster.

In September and October last year, the tropical storm Ketsana and the Typhoon Parma hit Luzon one after the other, causing severe flooding, killing more than 1,000 and causing damage estimated at US$4.3 billion (Dh15.8bn).

For the latest threat, thousands of the country's military reserve officers and volunteers were on stand-by. Helicopters were also being readied for deployment.

The country's most severe storm warning of grade four was issued for the provinces of Cagayan and Isabela. Many families in the most vulnerable parts of Isabela have moved to safer ground, while in Cagayan, residents of 12 coastal towns have been ordered out of their homes.

Manila is expected to suffer heavy rains as a result of Megi, and a level-one storm warning has been issued for the capital. Many other parts of the Philippines were yesterday under level-two or level-three warnings.

The typhoon yesterday packed winds of 225kph, with gusts of up to 260kph, although meteorologists warned it could strengthen before hitting land. It was moving south-west yesterday at a speed of 20kph.

While many people in low-lying areas had voluntarily gone to higher ground, officials warned they would forcibly move at-risk residents if necessary.

“If we have to conduct forced evacuations, we’ll do it for their safety,” Norma Talosig, the regional head of the Office of Civil Defence, told national radio. “Our main objective is the safety of the community.”

Search and rescue teams have been dispatched from Manila to work alongside local forces, according to Agrimero Cruz, the national police spokesman. Rubber boats, trucks and generators have also been sent north for use in rescue operations.

“We have also declared a full alert all over the country,” he said.

Farmers were told to harvest as much of their crops as they could before the typhoon struck, amid concern that yields in the rice, corn and tobacco-producing area could be
severely affected.

“Based on our estimates, about 50 to 60 per cent of our rice production could either be destroyed or damaged,” said Alvaro Antonio, the governor of northern Cagayan.

About a third of the Philippines’ rice production comes from the Cagayan valley, and there were already warnings last month that this year’s harvest would be millions of tonnes short of initial projections.

According to the US navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, the mountainous terrain in Luzon could take some of the force out of Megi, although it is likely to strengthen as it leaves the Philippines for the South China Sea.

Aldczar Aurelio, a government weather forecaster, said Megi had slowed slightly, but intensified, as it moved towards Luzon.

“It could gain further strength over the water before slamming into land,” he said, warning that rains could be as heavy as those in 2009 during Typhoon Ketsana, which inundated 80 per cent of Manila.

The Chinese authorities, which identified Megi as a “super typhoon”, also last night issued warnings, as the storm is expected to head into the South China Sea and put southern China and northern Vietnam under threat.

With China’s National Meteorological Centre issuing its second-highest level of alert, warning of “wild winds and huge waves”, vessels were advised to remain in port and local authorities told to prepare for heavy winds and rain.

dbardsley@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters