By Jim Gomez Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines — The strongest typhoon to menace the Philippines in recent years slammed ashore Monday in the northeast, where thousands of villagers fled to safety amid massive emergency preparations.
Millions of residents and rice farmers along the typhoon’s path were warned of pounding rains and fierce wind that could significantly damage agriculture, homes, power and communications.
The storm, packing sustained winds of 140 miles per hour and gusts of 162 mph, made landfall in the Philippines’ Isabela province midday Monday.
Megi was expected to move on later Monday toward southern China, which already has evacuated more than 100,000 people from villages because of earlier flooding, according to the China Meteorological Administration.
With its ferocious wind and heavy rainfall, Megi has become the most powerful typhoon to threaten the Philippines in four years, government forecasters say. A 2006 howler with 155-mph winds set off mudslides that buried entire villages, killing about 1,000 people.
Philippine weather officials issued the highest of a four-tier public storm alert for the two coastal provinces of Isabela and Cagayan and three mountain provinces where the typhoon is expected to pass before exiting the main northern island of Luzon into the South China Sea.
More than 3,000 people in coastal areas moved to school buildings and town halls that were turned into evacuation centers. Classes and outdoor activities were canceled, and officials advised families to have one person stay awake overnight for any contingency.
Ships and fishing vessels were told to stay in ports, and several domestic flights also were canceled.
Thousands of military reserve officers and volunteers were on standby, along with helicopters, including six Chinooks that were committed by U.S. troops holding war exercises with Filipino soldiers near Manila, said Benito Ramos, a top disaster-response official.
Rescue boats and thousands of food packs have been pre-positioned near vulnerable areas, he said.
“This is like preparing for war,” Ramos, a retired army general, told The Associated Press. “We know the past lessons, and we’re aiming for zero casualties.”
An angry President Benigno Aquino III fired the head of the weather bureau in July for failing to predict that a typhoon would hit Manila. That storm killed more than 100 people in Manila and outlying provinces.
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 Cagayan, a vast agricultural valley crisscrossed by rivers and creeks, authorities ordered villagers to move out of high-risk neighborhoods in 12 coastal towns.
“If nobody will budge, we may carry out forced evacuations,” said Bonifacio Cuarteros of the provincial disaster office.
Farmers in Cagayan, a rice- and tobacco-producing region of more than 1 million people about 250 miles northeast of Manila, have been warned to harvest as much of their crops as possible before the typhoon hits or risk losses, Cuarteros said.
With its current course and speed, the typhoon is expected to barrel across the northern tip of Luzon then blow into the South China Sea late Monday toward northern Vietnam or southern China.
China’s National Meteorological Center issued its second-highest alert for potential “wild winds and huge waves,” warning vessels to take shelter and urging authorities to brace for emergencies, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Sunday.
Floods triggered by heavy rains forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate in China’s southern island province of Hainan, where heavy rains have already left thousands homeless over the weekend, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. More rain is expected as Typhoon Megi approaches the region.
Record-level flooding in Hainan over the past month has damaged roads, overflowed reservoirs and cut off telecommunication networks across the region.