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Updated: Fri, 08 Nov 2013 19:29:46 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Typhoon Haiyan, strongest storm ever at landfall, rocks Philippines



Girls ride on bicycles as they are splashed with water from strong waves in a coastal village as Typhoon Haiyan battered Bayog town in Los Banos, Laguna, south of Manila November 8, 2013. Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon in the world this year and possibly the most powerful ever to hit land battered the central Philippines on Friday, forcing millions of people to flee to safer ground, cutting power lines and blowing apart houses. Haiyan, a category-5 super typhoon, bore down on the northern tip of Cebu Province, a popular tourist destination with the country's second-largest city, after lashing the islands of Leyte and Samar with 275 kph (© 170 mph)

Girls ride on bicycles as they are splashed with water from strong waves in a coastal village as Typhoon Haiyan battered Bayog town in Los Banos, Laguna, south of Manila November 8, 2013. Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon in the world this year and possibly the most powerful ever to hit land battered the central Philippines on Friday, forcing millions of people to flee to safer ground, cutting power lines and blowing apart houses. Haiyan, a category-5 super typhoon, bore down on the northern tip of Cebu Province, a popular tourist destination with the country's second-largest city, after lashing the islands of Leyte and Samar with 275 kph (170 mph) wind gusts and 5-6 meter (15-19 ft) waves. REUTERS/Charlie Saceda Charlie Secada/Reuters

One of the strongest storms on record slammed into the central Philippines on Friday, killing at least four people, forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes and knocking out power and communications in several provinces. But the nation appeared to avoid a major disaster because the rapidly moving typhoon blew away before wreaking more damage, officials said.

Typhoon Haiyan left the Philippines early Saturday on a path toward Southeast Asia, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tweeted. Forecasters said the storm was expected to pick up renewed strength over the South China Sea on its way toward Vietnam. 

Nearly 750,000 people in the Philippines were forced to flee their homes. 

Weather officials said Haiyan had sustained winds of 235 km/h with gusts of 275 km/h when it made landfall. By those measurements, Haiyan would be comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane in the U.S., knocking on the door of the top category, a 5.

Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are the same thing. They are just called different names in different parts of the world.

CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland said two recent and infamous North American storms — Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina — pale in comparison to Haiyan, which in North America would be a Category 5 hurricane, the worst classification.

"Katrina was producing sustained winds of 205 km/h when it made its second landfall in Louisiana, when we saw all that destruction in New Orleans," Scotland said. "Sandy, at its peak, was briefly a Category 3 hurricane. That produced sustained winds of 185 km/h. We're talking winds well in excess of 300 km/h.

"So really the best thing to compare this to would actually be a tornado. And we're looking at winds that are as strong as a strong F3 tornado."

F3 tornadoes will overturn trains, lift cars off the ground and heavily damage strong homes, Scotland said. 

"Only we're not talking about a very small area, a neighbourhood or a city or a town being affected. We're talking about an entire country," he said.

Full extent of damage unknown

Because of cut-off communications in the Philippines, it was impossible to know the full extent of casualties and damage. At least two people were electrocuted in storm-related accidents, one person was killed by a fallen tree and another was struck by lightning, official reports said.

Southern Leyte Gov. Roger Mercado said the typhoon triggered landslides that blocked roads, uprooted trees and ripped roofs off houses around his residence.

The dense clouds and heavy rains made the day seem almost as dark as night, he said.

"When you're faced with such a scenario, you can only pray, and pray and pray," Mercado told The Associated Press by telephone, adding that mayors in the province had not called in to report any major damage.

"I hope that means they were spared and not the other way around," he said. "My worst fear is there will be massive loss of lives and property."

Eduardo del Rosario, head of the disaster response agency, said a powerful typhoon that also hit the central Philippines in 1990 killed 508 people and left 246 missing, but this time authorities had ordered pre-emptive evacuation and other measures to minimize casualties.

He said the speed at which the typhoon sliced through the central islands — 40 km/h — helped prevent its 600-kilometre band of rain clouds from dumping enough of their load to overflow waterways. Flooding from heavy rains is often the main cause of deaths from typhoons.

"It has helped that the typhoon blew very fast in terms of preventing lots of casualties," regional military commander Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda said. He said the massive evacuation of villagers before the storm also saved many lives.

More storm preparations

The Philippines, which is hit by about 20 typhoons and storms a year, has in recent years become more serious about preparations to reduce deaths. Public service announcements are frequent, as are warnings by the president and high-ranking officials that are regularly carried on radio and TV and social networking sites.

Provincial governors and mayors have taken a hands-on approach during crises, supervising evacuations, inspecting shelters and efforts to stockpile food and relief supplies.

President Benigno Aquino III assured the public of war-like preparations, with three C-130 air force cargo planes and 32 military helicopters and planes on standby, along with 20 navy ships.

Among the evacuees were thousands of residents of Bohol who had been camped in tents and other makeshift shelters since a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit the island province last month.

Relief workers said they were struggling to find ways to deliver food and other supplies, with roads blocked by landslides and fallen trees.

The storm "unleashed fierce winds and harsh rains that uprooted big trees and toppled electric poles and power lines," said Aaron Aspi, a spokesman for World Vision in Bohol.

From Samar, the typhoon battered Leyte, then the northern part of Cebu and nearby islands before lashing Panay — islands with some of the best beach resorts in the Philippines.

As of 8 p.m., the typhoon was north of Palawan province, 320 kilometres southwest of Manila, and had weakened a bit with sustained winds of 215 km/h.

Forecasters said the storm was expected to move out of the country and into the South China Sea on Saturday morning, where it was likely to pick up renewed strength on its way toward Vietnam.

Dozens of flights in the central and southern Philippines were cancelled. A storm surge estimated at 5 metres damaged a seaside airport in Leyte's Tacloban city. Airport workers moved to the tower and were safe but no other details had been reported because communications were cut by the typhoon, aviation official John Andrews said.

"They've been incommunicado. The last message we got from them was that the airport was ruined," Andrews said.

Andrews said the typhoon also damaged the airport in Kalibo town in Aklan.

Dispute on storm's strength

World weather experts are calling Hiayan one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record at the time it hit land, but not quite the windiest. There are disputes over just how strong it is because of differences in the way storms are measured.

"In terms of the world I don't think it's the strongest," said Taoyang Peng, a tropical cyclone scientist at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. But he added that "it is one of the strongest typhoons to make landfall" and probably the strongest to hit the Philippines.

The U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center put Haiyan's sustained winds at 315 km/h just minutes before it made landfall Thursday, which would be a world record. However, officials in Tokyo and the Philippines put the wind speed at about 235 km/h.

Peng said his group considers Tokyo the authority in this case because it's the closest regional centre to the storm.

The best way to measure a storm is with radar from a plane flying in and out of it. That's not done in Asia, where they use satellite imagery and ground measurements instead.

Not until meteorologists can conduct a deep investigation will scientists know just how strong Haiyan actually was, but it will easily be one of the strongest on record, former U.S. National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield told the AP on Friday.

Mayfield described looking at radar images of Haiyan, saying, "it has got to weaken, it has got to weaken" — and yet it didn't.

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