HONG KONG - Severe Typhoon Usagi made landfall in southern China Sunday evening, shutting down one of the world's busiest sea ports in nearby Hong Kong and throwing flight schedules into disarray from Europe to the United States.
Usagi packed winds of 165 kilometres (103 miles) per hour as it closed in on China's densely populated Pearl River Delta, forcing some residents in vulnerable areas to tape up windows and stock up on supplies.
The storm, described by meteorologists as the most powerful anywhere on Earth this year, killed two people in the Philippines and unleashed landslides in Taiwan en route to southern China.
The Hong Kong Observatory hoisted the No.8 signal - the third of a five-step tropical storm warning.
Authorities in the southern Chinese city said it was likely to bring "severe" disruption, with transport systems affected and expectations of high waves and flooding in low-lying areas.
Local meteorological authorities told China's Xinhua news agency that the storm made landfall at 7.40pm (1140 GMT) near Guangdong's Shanwei city, sparing densely populated Hong Kong a direct hit.
But at Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport, airline counters were besieged by anxious passengers hoping to rebook their flights after the Cathay Pacific group said it was cancelling all its flights from 6:00 pm Sunday.
With many other airlines following suit, only a handful of flights were still scheduled to land or take off after 6:00 pm. Incoming flights from London, Sydney and Chicago among other cities were cancelled, and thousands of people risked being stranded at their point of origin or in Hong Kong.
Operators at Hong Kong's sea port, one of the world's busiest, ceased work late on Saturday, stranding many giant tankers in sea channels not far from shore.
The financial hub is well versed in typhoon preparations and enforces strict building codes, so rarely suffers major loss of life as a result of tropical storms.
But the observatory warned against complacency.
China's National Meteorological Centre earlier issued a "red alert" - its highest-level warning - for Usagi, which means rabbit in Japanese. It forecast gale-force winds and heavy rain.
Sunday is a regular business day in China but in Xiamen city, on the coast of Fujian province, authorities called off school classes and suspended ferries to Taiwan.
Like a tsunami
On its way to Hong Kong and southern China, Usagi forced the evacuation of some 3,400 people in southern Taiwan, dumped more than 70 centimetres (27 inches) of rain on Hualien city, and forced more than 100 flights to be delayed or cancelled to and from the island.
A mudslide hit one hotel in a popular hot-springs resort area of Taiwan's Taitung county late Saturday, shattering windows and damaging some furniture. "I heard a loud sound and (the mudslide) came through the windows of the restaurant in the back. Our customers were safe but we estimate losses of Tw$1.5 million ($50,000)," a hotel worker told reporters.
Remote villages elsewhere in Pintung county suffered heavy flooding.
"I thought a tsunami was hitting... I've never encountered this before in my life," said a 60-year-old woman who scrambled to safety with her pet dog. Twelve people were injured in Kinmen, a Taiwan-controlled island off China's Fujian province, after they were hit by falling trees, according to the Central Emergency Operation Centre.
But in the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung, a giant yellow duck designed by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman - which has already proved a huge hit in Hong Kong - was set to be reflated for public viewing as wind speeds ebbed. Prior to Taiwan, Usagi brushed the far north of the Philippines where a man and a woman drowned when their boat capsized in high seas. Another two people are missing from the mishap.
Authorities in the Batan and Babuyan island groups, which are populated by about 33,000 people, reported toppled power pylons as well as houses, schools and government buildings losing their roofs to Usagi's high winds.
"Some roads are impassable due to debris, landslides and flooding. Local disaster officials told us this was the strongest typhoon they had experienced in years," regional civil defence officer Ronald Villa told AFP.
The region is regularly pummelled by tropical storms. Typhoon Bopha left a trail of destruction in the southern Philippines last year, triggering floods and landslides that left more than 1,800 dead and missing and displaced nearly one million people.