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Tens of thousands flee as Christmas typhoon hits Philippines

Residents sit inside a classroom at the Central Elementary School which has been turned into an evacuation centre, in Santo Domingo, central Philippines’ Albay province, on December 25, 2016, due to approaching Typhoon Nock-Ten © AFP / Charism SAYAT

Daraga, Philippines, Dec 25 – A powerful typhoon hit the Philippines late Sunday, cutting off electricity to millions and disrupting Christmas celebrations for tens of thousands who fled its approach, officials said.

Typhoon Nock-Ten made landfall in the eastern island province of Catanduanes at 6:30 pm (1030 GMT) with gusts of 235 kilometres (146 miles) an hour, the state weather service said.

Officials said there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties from the storm, one of the strongest this year to hit the disaster-prone archipelago on the Pacific Rim.

The military and local governments earlier moved at least 102,000 people from the coasts, Catanduanes and the nearby Bicol peninsula, an impoverished region which is home to more than five million, provincial officials said.

“Most of Bicol is without electricity,” Joaquin Berces, a member of the region’s civil defence office told AFP as residents hunkered down in the dark.

Philippines © AFP

“We stayed indoors for our own safety and we probably won’t know the extent of the damage until tomorrow,” he said by telephone from Legazpi city, the regional capital about 350 kilometres southeast of Manila.

Communication and power lines have been cut in Catanduanes, he added.

– Festivities abandoned –

Experts had earlier warned of large coastal waves of up to 2.5-metres (eight-feet) high, floods and landslides.

The typhoon was forecast to sweep west toward the country’s most densely populated areas, passing just south of the capital Manila on Monday afternoon.

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People watch as storm clouds gather around Manila bay © AFP/File / Ted ALJIBE

“It would pass over land overnight and we hope that would dissipate the typhoon’s strength somewhat” before reaching the Manila area, state weather forecaster Lorie de la Cruz told AFP.

She said maximum sustained winds during land fall were 185 kilometres (115 miles) per hour, far lower than the 250 kph winds estimated earlier by the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Nock-Ten, named after a bird found in Laos, struck on one of the biggest holidays in the mainly Christian nation, and one provincial governor offered roast pig at evacuation centres to entice people to abandon celebrations at home.

“Floods terrify me. Each time I hear about a coming typhoon I want to throw up,” Criselda Buenvenuto, 68, told AFP as she joined neighbours sheltering at a school in the town of Santo Domingo in Bicol.

The hunchbacked widow lived alone in the kitchen of her house after the rest of it was destroyed during a typhoon 10 years ago that killed more than a thousand people.

In the village of Alcala on the slopes of the active Mayon volcano, about 100 babies, toddlers, parents and elderly people were the first to be trucked off to another school as rain and strong winds shook trees.

Babies, toddlers and old people are loaded onto military trucks in the Philippines on December 25, 2016 as thousands flee from the path of a powerful typhoon © AFP

“There are large ash deposits on the slopes (of Mayon). Heavy rain can dislodge them and bury our homes in mud,” said local official Alberto Lindo.

– Clear the beaches –

The government forced more than 12,000 residents to move away from the Catanduanes coast, provincial vice governor Shirley Abundo said on ABS-CBN television.

In Camarines Sur province near Catanduanes, governor Miguel Villafuerte said on his Facebook page that nearly 90,000 residents were moved out of their homes as part of his “zero casualty” goal.

“Please evacuate, we will offer roast pig at the evacuation centres,” he said in another post on Twitter.

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Civil defence officials in Bicol said earlier nearly half a million people in the region were in harm’s way and needed to be moved out.

All ferry services and commercial flights in the area were suspended.

Some 20 typhoons or lesser storms strike the Philippines each year, routinely killing hundreds of people, and Bicol is often the first region to be hit.

It prides itself on having sharpened its disaster response to minimise casualties.

Rescue workers in Manila and surrounding provinces have been put on standby, evacuation centres opened and food and other rations stocked.

The coastguard on Sunday ordered the beaches south of Manila to be cleared of holidaymakers by Monday, while residents of the capital’s seaside slums were warned to leave their homes.

Mammoth tsunami-like waves devastated the city of Tacloban and nearby areas when super typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines in November 2013, leaving 7,350 people dead or missing.

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