Typhoon Hagupit tears down homes as it roars into disaster-weary Philippines

Residents walk past high waves brought about by strong winds as it pound the seawall, hours before Typhoon Hagupit passes near the city of Legazpi on Dec 7, 2014. Typhoon Hagupit tore apart homes and sent waves crashing through coastal communities ac
Residents walk past high waves brought about by strong winds as it pound the seawall, hours before Typhoon Hagupit passes near the city of Legazpi on Dec 7, 2014. Typhoon Hagupit tore apart homes and sent waves crashing through coastal communities across the eastern Philippines, creating more misery for millions following a barrage of deadly disasters. -- PHOTO: AFP

LEGASPI, Philippines (AFP/REUTERS) - Typhoon Hagupit tore apart homes and sent waves crashing through coastal communities across the eastern Philippines on Sunday, creating more misery for millions following a barrage of deadly disasters.

The typhoon roared in from the Pacific Ocean and into remote fishing communities of Samar island on Saturday night with wind gusts of 210 kmh, local weather agency Pagasa said.

The wind strength at landfall made Hagupit the most powerful storm to hit the Philippines this year, exceeding a typhoon in July that killed more than 100 people.

"Many houses, especially in the coastal areas, were blown away by strong winds," Ms Stephanie Uy-Tan, the mayor of Catbalogan, a city on Samar, told AFP by phone on Sunday morning. "Trees and power lines were toppled, tin roofs were blown off and there is flooding."

Local radio reported at least four people were killed in Eastern Samar and Iloilo, but that could not be confirmed by officials. The Philippine Red Cross said it was also verifying the reports.

In Tacloban, one of the cities worst-hit by Haiyan, palm-thatch temporary houses built by aid agencies for survivors of last year's typhoon had been torn apart, Vice-Mayor Jerry Yaokasin told AFP.

However, there was no repeat of the storm surges that did the most damage during Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda.

"There is a collective sigh of relief. The initial assessment is that there are no casualties. We were better prepared after Yolanda, up to 50,000 people were packed in evacuation centres," Mr Yaokasin said.

"But the transitional shelters made of nipa (palm thatch) were blown away. Our biggest challenge is how to provide for those who were displaced because of that," he said.

In the eastern region of Bicol that was due to be hit throughout Sunday and Monday, hundreds of thousands of people were huddling in schools, churches and other official evacuation centres.

In Legaspi, a major city in Bicol, ocean sprays more than 1m-high crashed above the city's seawall and fierce winds roared on Sunday morning, ahead of the main typhoon front.

More than one million people had fled to shelters away from coastal areas and landslide-prone villages by the time Typhoon Hagupit made landfall on Saturday night, in what a United Nations agency said was one of the world’s biggest peacetime evacuations.

Hagupit, which days earlier had reached category 5 “super typhoon” strength as it churned across the Pacific Ocean, further weakened on Sunday to category 2 as it made a second landfall at Cataingan town in the south of Masbate island.

“We are now experiencing very strong winds and heavy rains,” Mr Wilton Co, mayor of Cataingan town, told a radio interview. “I asked everyone to stay indoors and move inland to higher ground, hoping that we will have zero casualties.”

The typhoon was moving west-north-west at 15 kmh, with sustained winds of 140 kmh and gusts of up to 170 kmh, the Philippine weather bureau PAGASA said. It was expected to pass around 120km south of the capital Manila by early Monday morning.Power was cut across most of the eastern island of Samar and nearby Leyte province, including Tacloban. “I can’t penetrate the areas, I can’t go north or south because of fallen trees and power lines. Many areas are flooded,” Mr Ben Evardone, a congressman for Eastern Samar, said from his base in the provincial capital Borongan.Fearful of a repeat of last year when Super Typhoon Haiyan claimed more than 7,350 lives, the government undertook a massive evacuation effort ahead of Hagupit that saw millions of people seek shelter.

Hopes of avoiding a mass disaster were boosted by Hagupit's maximum wind gusts dropping to 170 kmh, with sustained winds of 140 kmh, on Sunday morning.

However, Hagupit was forecast to take three days to cut across the Philippines, passing over mostly poor central regions, and the authorities were still bracing for worst-case scenarios.

The government warned of storm surges up to 5m high in some areas, flash flooding, landslides and winds strong enough to tear apart even sturdy homes.

Tens of millions of people live in the typhoon's path, including those in the central Philippines who are still struggling to recover from the devastation of Haiyan, which hit 13 months ago.

General Gregorio Catapang, head of the military, said nearly 2,000 soldiers were clearing the roads and two airports on Samar to bring in food trucks and aircraft loaded with emergency supplies. “There were areas that experienced storm surges,” said Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo, adding the agency was verifying the exact height of the waves.The weather bureau said Hagupit – which means “lash” in Filipino – was maintaining the projected path that would take it through Masbate, Romblon and Mindoro islands in the archipelago’s central belt, slightly north of areas devastated by super typhoon Haiyan last year.Residents of low-lying villages and landslide-prone areas had been evacuated to schools, civic centres, town halls, gyms and churches, the national disaster agency said.Mr Alfred Romnualdez, mayor of Tacloban, said although more than 48,000 had fled to shelters, damage to the city appeared to have been minor.

“Thank God, the typhoon spared us and we have no reported casualties,” Mr Romualdez told Reuters.

“By the end of the day we expect the people to return to their homes from shelter areas.”

There were more than 1.2 million people crowding over 1,500 evacuation centres across the central Philippines, said Ms Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine Red Cross, adding local governments were providing the evacuees’ basic needs.But there were worries on sanitation and the impact on health of the evacuees in cramped spaces especially in urban areas.

“The critical issue is in evacuation centres where there is a high number of evacuees,” said Social Work Secretary Corazon Soliman. “We are concerned that the congestion will cause more threat on health.”

Environment and humanitarian groups are hoping the typhoon would spur action at UN climate talks in Lima, where almost 200 nations are meeting to work out an accord to slow global warming, due at a summit in Paris in a year’s time.

“My country is under water, farms have been wiped away, homes destroyed, families separated,” Mr Shubert Ciencia of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and a member of global relief organisation Oxfam, said in Lima.

“Nobody should have to live under the threat of destruction year after year. But we want action, not pity. Negotiators have a chance to make history by standing up for those who have already lost so much and the millions more who will suffer the same fate unless we act now,” he said.At the global climate talks in Peru, Filipino activists said the frequency of typhoons had settled any debate in the Philippines about whether man-made global warming exists.

"In the hour of our peril, now is the time for politicians to back up their expressions of solidarity with real action at the UN climate talks," said Mr Jasper Inventor of Greenpeace. "It has become an issue of our survival."

An Oxfam report in November showed Asia is highly vulnerable to increasingly severe and frequent weather extremes and woefully underprepared to manage growing crises.

Haiyan was the strongest storm ever recorded on land, with winds of 315 kmh, and generated tsunami-like storm surges that ravaged entire towns.The Philippines endures about 20 major storms a year which, along with regular earthquakes and volcano eruptions, make it one of the world's most disaster-plagued countries.

The storms regularly claim many lives but they are becoming more violent and unpredictable because of climate change, according to the United Nations and many scientists.

Haiyan was the world's deadliest natural disaster last year.

In 2011 and 2012, there were consecutive December storms that together claimed more than 3,000 lives and were the world's deadliest disasters of those years.

And in July this year, Typhoon Rammasun killed 111 people when it cut across Manila, paralysing the capital for days, and other parts of the main island of Luzon.