Thousands of people were evacuated to safer ground as the Philippines prepared for the arrival of Typhoon Mangkhut, the most powerful storm expected to hit the archipelago in 2018, officials said Thursday.
Typhoon Mangkhut was tracked earlier in the day approaching the Philippines from the western Pacific at 20 kilometers per hour (12.4 miles per hour) and sustaining winds of up to 205 kph (127.3 mph). It is expected to make landfall in the country’s northern region on Saturday.
The extreme weather system was expected to bring “destructive winds, storm surges and heavy rains” that could swamp an area within a radius of 600 km (372.8 miles), officials warned. The size of the potential impact area practically covers more than a third of the Philippines.
As of Thursday, a BenarNews team en route to Cagayan province in the northern part of Luzon island – where the typhoon was expected to make landfall– reported that the area remained calm, but there was a sense of foreboding and panic.
Classes in Manila and northern provinces were cancelled for Friday, as residents, particularly in low-lying areas or near rivers and beaches, were told to flee to higher ground.
The welfare of an estimated 10 million people was of particular concern, said Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross.
“We’re worried for the 10 million people in the Philippines living in the path of this destructive storm, including those who have been displaced several times due to the monsoon rains last July and August,” Gordon said in a statement.
“We are preparing our emergency assets and relief items. Our staff and volunteers are on high alert for possible deployment,” he said.
The typhoon was also likely to ravage vast agricultural lands in Luzon, the country’s traditional bread basket, officials said.
An estimated 1.2-million hectares of farmland planted with rice and corn were at risk, according to Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol.
“In a worst case scenario, an estimated 893,000 hectares of rice farms in the four regions will be affected by Typhoon Ompong,” Piñol said, using the Filipino name for Mangkhut.
‘This is nature’
In the seaside town of Santa Ana, in Cagayan province, Mayor Darwin Tobias said he had ordered the total evacuation of residents living along the coastline amid warnings that Mangkhut could whip up storm surges of up to six meters (19.6 feet) that could flood homes.
Heavy rains were also expected within a 900-kilometer (559.2-mile) diameter.
“We will ensure that everybody will be given assistance, especially those unfortunate. We will be asking help from the national government,” Tobias said.
Delaila Pasion, a garlic farmer in Pasuquin, a town in Ilocos Norte province, was not taking any chances. She bundled up her family’s few belongings and sought shelter with her loved ones at an evacuation center, where they planned to wait out the storm.
“I can’t do anything because this is nature,” she said. “I’ll just start over. Our lives are more important.”
Meanwhile, Edgar Posadas, the spokesman for the Philippine government’s disaster relief agency, said it was aiming for a “zero casualty” rate with the coming storm.
“We have improved a lot since Yolanda. We are hoping and praying for zero casualties this time,” Posadas said, referring to the super typhoon also known as Haiyan that battered the central Philippines and left more than 6,000 people dead in November 2013.
While some parts of the northern Philippines were sunny on Thursday, he said people should not be complacent.
Five years ago, officials had prepared insufficiently for Supertyphoon Haiyan because the weather was hot and humid on the day before it made landfall.
When Haiyan hit it cut across the central Philippines, blew away homes and brought heavy rains and flooding. That weather disturbance was comparable to a Category 4 hurricane.
Haiyan was the strongest storm to have made landfall in history, and five years later, many areas in the central Philippines are still feeling the long-term effects of the devastation.
The Philippines sits on a typhoon belt and endures up to 20 tropical storms a year, some of them devastating. While the public is largely taught to prepare for extreme weather systems, yearly floods and storms still cause deadly damage in the country.
“We are confident that our inter-agency regional councils, with the support and cooperation of the provincial and local councils, are ready to address the impending threats of the typhoon,” Posadas said of Mangkhut.
Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines contributed to this report.