TAIPEI - An eight-year-old girl died after being swept out to sea off Taiwan as Typhoon Soudelor bore down on the island, forcing thousands to flee and troops to be placed on standby, officials said Friday.
Billed as the biggest typhoon of the year earlier in the week, Soudelor has since weakened but authorities warned it may strengthen once more before making landfall.
More than 2,000 people have already been relocated from Taiwan's outlying islands, popular with tourists, and troops were preparing to help more residents move from their homes into shelters.
In two coastal counties - Yilan and Hualien - offices and schools shut down Friday morning with more counties, mainly in the north and east, expected to follow suit later in the day.
Some flights out of Taiwan were also cancelled.
The young girl became the first casualty of the impending storm after she was swept out to sea in eastern Yilan county on Thursday, authorities said.
Another child was also missing in the same incident, while a 38-year-old woman and another girl survived.
"The girl who died and the one who went missing were swept away by strong waves," a spokesman for the National Fire Agency told AFP.
Packing maximum wind speeds of 173 kilometres per hour (108 miles per hour) near its centre, Soudelor was 440 kilometres southeast of eastern Hualien county Friday morning.
It was due to make landfall on the central east coast late Friday or early Saturday morning.
Currently described as a "moderate typhoon" by Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau - the second highest category - it could be raised to the top category of "severe typhoon" if wind speeds near the centre reach more than 184 kilometres an hour.
"We don't rule out the chances Soudelor could strengthen later," said the weather bureau.
Soudelor was described as a "super typhoon" by the Hong Kong Observatory earlier in the week as it reached maximum sustained wind speeds of 230 kilometres an hour.
The observatory's super typhoon status is given when wind speeds exceed 185 kilometres per hour.
The storm will unleash heavy rains across northern and eastern Taiwan between Friday night and Saturday. Both land and sea warnings have been raised.
The government warned all departments to take precautionary measures ahead of Soudelor's landing, including preparation for floods, landslides, and fallen trees.
The defence ministry said it had readied 100 shelters that can accommodate more than 45,000 people while around 32,000 soldiers were placed on standby for disaster relief.
Fishing boats put into harbour along the coast as the storm approached.
"Although it won't have the same effect of Typhoon Morakot, this typhoon is still very well developed," Premier Mao Chi-kuo said Thursday, referring to a storm that killed 600 people in 2009.