Tropical storm threatens to hit Philippine island that the Pope will visit

MANILA (AFP) - The Philippines was watching nervously on Sunday as a tropical storm threatened a typhoon-prone central island that Pope Francis will visit this week on his tour of the fervently Catholic nation.

The country's weather bureau said a low-pressure area currently over the Pacific Ocean was on course for Leyte Island, touted as one of the highlights of the pontiff's four-day visit, and could develop into a storm by the time it enters Philippine waters on Thursday.

Leyte was the province worst-hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, and suffered landslides and floods late last year wrought by tropical storm Jangmi. "Part of contingency planning are possible inclement scenarios... options are being developed," presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma from the papal visit organising committee told AFP.

Asked if cancelling the events on Leyte island on Jan 17 was an option, Mr Coloma said: "It's best to wait until the (weather disturbance) enters the Philippines before making specific contingency plans."

In a best-case scenario, the low-pressure area would turn northwards and spare the country, but there is also an equal chance it will intensify into a storm, state weather forecaster Alvin Pura told AFP.

"This may hit the Eastern Visayas and bring rains to the Pope's events," he said, referring to the island chain in which Leyte sits.

Mr Pura could not immediately say how much rain was possible on Leyte if the storm developed and hit the island.

During the last week of 2014, the Eastern Visayas were caught off guard when a storm bearing relatively weak winds brought heavy rains, triggering flashfloods and landslides that killed 54 people.

The Pontiff, who arrives in the country on Thursday, will be in Leyte on Saturday to give a mass at the airport in Tacloban, ground zero for Haiyan, and have lunch with storm survivors in nearby Palo town.

The weather disturbance was unlikely to affect another mass in Manila the day after, where millions are expected to attend, Mr Pura said.

Partly cloudy skies and cool weather are expected in the capital on that day, he said.

The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons per year, many of them deadly.

Haiyan, the strongest typhoon to hit land with 230 kmh winds, brought tsunami-like waves to the central Philippines, wiping out entire towns and leaving more than 7,350 people dead or missing.

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