MANILA - More than half a million people in the Philippines have fled from a powerful typhoon in one of the world's biggest peacetime evacuations as the storm churns towards central provinces that still bear the scars of a super typhoon 13 months ago.
Typhoon Hagupit was approaching eastern coasts on Saturday, with its eye 230 km (143 miles) east northeast of Borongan, in Eastern Samar province, the weather bureau PAGASA said.
The storm was downgraded to a notch below super typhoon category but could still unleash huge destruction with torrential rain and potentially disastrous storm surges of up to 4.5 metres (15 feet).
With winds of up to 195 kph (121 mph) near the centre and gusts of up to 215 kph (133 mph), the storm was moving slowly at 10 kph (6 mph) and was expected to hit Eastern or Northern Samar province early on Sunday.
More than 616,000 residents of low-lying villages and landslide-prone areas have fled to schools, civic centres, town halls, gyms and churches, the national disaster agency said. "We call on residents to voluntarily evacuate because the forecast is there will be a storm surge," Sofronio Dacillo, head of the disaster agency in the island province of Biliran in the central Philippines, said on national radio.
Residents of Eastern Samar said rain was falling and their power was fluctuating on Saturday morning.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva said 200,000 people had been evacuated in the central island province of Cebu alone. "Typhoon Hagupit is triggering one of the largest evacuations we have ever seen in peacetime," said spokesman Denis McClean.
Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific cancelled nearly 100 flights to central and southern Philippines on Saturday.
The eastern islands of Samur and Leyte, worst-hit by 250 kph (155 mph) winds and storm surges brought by Typhoon Haiyan in November last year, could be in the firing line again. "I am afraid and scared," said Teresita Aban, a 58-year-old housewife from Sta. Rita, in Samar province, wiping away tears and trembling as she spoke. "We're prepared but still fearful, we haven't finished repairing our house, it still has tarpaulin patches and here comes another storm." Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall left more than 7,000 dead or missing and more than 4 million homeless or with damaged houses.
About 25,000 people in Eastern Samar and Leyte still live in tents, shelters and bunkhouses more than a year after Haiyan.
About 10 million residents of the Bicol and Eastern Visayas regions of the central Philippines are at risk of flooding, storm surges and strong winds as Hagupit hits land. AccuWeather Global Weather Center said more than 30 million people would feel the impact of the typhoon across the Philippines.
The weather bureau said 47 provinces were at risk of strong wind and rains.