Intense Typhoon Rails Against the Philippines

With memories of last year’s killer typhoons still fresh, Typhoon Megi roared across the Philippines on Monday, ripping off roofs and cutting off electricity. Megi is the 10th typhoon to hit the Philippines this year, and at least three people died in what the national Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council is billing as the strongest storm of the year. Megi was registered as a category 5 super typhoon.

Typhoon Megi made landfall in Isabela province at 1125 local time (0325 GMT), destroying buildings and crops, cutting power and telecommunications. Trees swayed and relentless rains inundated roads. Storm chaser James Cabrera, who was in Luzon, said parts of the Philippines could see 300 to 500 millimeters (12 to 20 inches) of rain. In six hours from 8 a.m. (0000 GMT), the city of Tuguegarao in Cagayan had 2.2 inches of rain, while Baguio City on the western side of Luzon had 28 mm, the weather bureau said. Megi whipped up huge waves in Luzon – forecasters had said they might be greater than 14m (46 ft). Local media said the rain meant there was near-zero visibility and that the wind was so powerful people could barely walk outside. Ships were told to stay in port, and domestic and international flights were cancelled.

The cyclone’s peak wind speeds have decreased in the past several hours, as the system moved over the Sierra Madre mountains, but it still packed sustained winds of 175 kph (109 mph) with gusts up to 212 kph (132 mph), according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. This is down from peak sustained winds of 212 kph, with gusts up to 259 (161 mph), over the weekend. “Unfortunately, this is a part of the world where the infrastructure is quite fragile, the power grid is quite fragile and a lot of people live in quite basic houses,” James Reynolds, a storm chaser who is on Luzon, told CNN on Monday. A “state of calamity” was declared in Isabela. (BBC) More than 4,150 people took shelter in school buildings, town halls and churches as the typhoon blew over Isabella, officials said. Many others fled to higher ground after warnings of flash floods and landslides. Television footage showed uprooted trees lying on roads, and metal and thatched roofing blown off houses. Up to 90% of communications in Isabela might have been knocked out, officials said. On the southern Chinese island of Hainan, the rain prompted more than a 100,000 people to leave their homes over the weekend.

More than a dozen people are already missing in central Vietnam after floodwaters swept away a bus. At least 20 others are known to have been killed in floods as heavy rain pounded the region. “People are exhausted,” Vietnamese disaster official Nguyen Ngoc Giai said by telephone from the Quang Binh province. “Many people have not even returned to their flooded homes from previous flooding, while many others who returned home several days ago were forced to be evacuated again.” (CBC)

Thailand also reported flooding that paralyzed parts of the country, submerging thousands of homes and vehicles and halting train service. No casualties were reported, but nearly 100 elephants were evacuated from a popular tourist attraction north of the capital.

Emergency workers pulled the body of Vicente Decena, 53, from a bloated river, after just having rescued his water buffalo. Decena slipped and fell into the river and drowned in Cagayan province. A tree fell on the house of Aileen Respicio, 20, killing her and injuring her child in Kalinga province. A security guard died after being struck by a tree in Baguio, in Benguet province. Five others were injured elsewhere, the disaster council reported. At a news conference in Manila, the director of the national disaster agency expressed sadness over the deaths. “The governor of Isabela declared a state of calamity, so there could be massive damage and destruction there,” Benito Ramos said. “Power has been cut and crops about to be harvested could have been destroyed. We have no actual reports because we’re waiting for the weather to clear up to make an assessment.” (BBC) Bracing for the typhoon, Ramos said, was like “preparing for war.” (CBC)

“We are marooned inside our home. We cannot go out. The winds and rain are very strong. Many trees are being uprooted or snapped in half,” Ernesto Macadangdang of Burgos, Isabela, told local radio. (BBC)

Thousands of military reservists and volunteers are on standby to assist those affected, along with several helicopters, Mr. Ramos said. Trucks, rescue boats and food packs were also pre-positioned near vulnerable areas. “If you have a landslide, and people have not evacuated on the ground, it can cost thousands of lives,” said Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippines Red Cross. “That’s why we are focusing on the whole operation of the government and the Red Cross and other agencies – including local governments and the military – are all focused on trying to make sure minimal lives are lost in this typhoon,” he said. (CBC) In some areas, emergency crews were relying on two-way radios to communicate because the storm had knocked out phone and internet service, Manila-based freelance reporter Dean Bernardo said.

Correspondents say the Philippines is the world’s biggest rice importer, and damage from the typhoon could se it buy more than had been expected for 2011, which could push up the price. Cagayan Governor Alvaro Antonio said the wind was fierce but blew high from the ground, sparing many rice fields ready for harvesting. Andrew Villacorta, regional executive director in the agriculture department, said the Cagayan valley accounted for 12 percent of national rice output, or about 1 million tons of unmilled rice. He said just over one third of the crop had been harvested, while about 90 percent of the corn crop had been harvested.

Last year, the country lost 1.3 million tons of paddy rice following three strong typhoons in September and October, prompting it to go to the market early to boost its stocks. “This could bring destruction to our crops,” Val Perdido, a regional farm official, told reporters. It’s the peak of harvest season now. More than 230,000 hectares of rice fields are stills in their reproductive and maturing stages.” (New York Times) Agricultural production makes up a fifth of the Southeast Asian country’s GDP.

Megi, also known as Typhoon Juan, is expected to pick up steam again as it heads over the South China Sea later Monday. Current forecasts from the Joint Typhoon Center show the storm heading toward the southeastern China coast, southeast of Hong Kong, and eventually to Vietnam. Even as it weakened, Megi continued to pose a serious threat. “Thousands of homes were evacuated and even though the storm is weakening, it will continue to bring flooding rains and mudslides as it tracks west across land,” said CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe. Weather forecasts said the capital is expected to be spared a direct hit this time, although the lowest weather alert was in effect Monday with preschools closed.

In July, President Benigno Aquino sacked the head of the weather bureau after he failed to predict a typhoon which unexpectedly changed course and hit Manila and its outlying provinces, killing more than 100 people. “We have learned our lesson from the grim experiences we had during typhoons Ondoy [known internationally as Ketsana] and Pepeng [Parma],” House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said, according to the Philippine News Agency. “We must all cooperate because nature’s wrath exempts no one.” (CNN) A year ago, tens of thousands of people were in evacuation centers as four consecutive typhoons drenched the Philippines. About 500 people were reported dead. Megi is the strongest storm the Philippines have faced since 2006, when 1,000 people were killed by mudslides triggered by Typhoon Durian.

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