MANILA (AFP) – Typhoon Megi gathered strength as it barrelled towards the northern Philippines on Monday, with authorities evacuating thousands of villagers to safer ground hours before it was to hit land.
Military rescuers and volunteers prepare life-saving equipment at Camp Aguinaldo in Manila. AFP
State weather forecasters said Megi has developed into a super typhoon and was expected to slam into the extreme northern Philippines by Monday and then cut westwards towards the East Sea (Vietnam).
It was then expected to hit China, becoming the country's strongest typhoon this year and prompting the weather agency to issue its second-highest level of alert, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
China warned its vessels to take shelter in ports and urged local authorities to prepare for emergencies caused by wind and rain, the report said.
Megi could uproot trees, blow away houses made of light material, trigger landslides and cause storm surges in coastal areas, Philippine authorities said as they began evacuating people from vulnerable areas.
It is expected to hit the northern province of Cagayan on Monday, and as of Sunday afternoon was already 450 kilometres (388 miles) east of the area, the state weather bureau said.
The storm was packing maximum winds of 195 kilometres an hour near the centre and gusts of up to 230 kilometres an hour, making it a super typhoon, forecasters said.
"Some are still gauging the situation, but those who are living in low areas have voluntarily gone to higher ground," said Benito Ramos, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
He said thousands of people have already temporarily relocated from communities along the Cagayan river system, which had overflowed during previous typhoons.
President Benigno Aquino ordered all government agencies to be on high alert to prevent casualties, while the coast guard was instructed to ban all fishing vessels from setting off to sea in the north.
"The president is reiterating that all agencies concerned should be ready for the approaching super typhoon Juan (Megi)," said Abigail Valte, a deputy spokeswoman for Aquino.
She warned the public against complacency, amid reports that the weather in some northern provinces remained clear as of early Sunday.
But Norma Talosig, regional chief of the Office of Civil Defence, said the government was not ruling out forced evacuation for those who refused to leave their homes despite being told to do so.
"If we have to conduct forced evacuations, we'll do it for their safety," Talosig said over national radio. "Our main objective is the safety of the community, the safety of the responders."
In Manila, disaster officials said food packs, medicine and rescue equipment, including rubber boats, were ready in areas expected to be lashed by the typhoon.
National police spokesman Senior Superintendent Agrimero Cruz said additional search and rescue teams from Manila were en route to the north to bolster forces there.
"We have also declared a full alert status all over the country," Cruz said.
Relief charities were also mobilising in preparation for any damage by the typhoon.
"We have prepositioned goods as well as a standby supplier for rice in case people will be evacuated here in Isabela. We will continue to monitor the typhoon," said Fe Olonan, World Vision program manager in Isabela -- a province of Luzon which is on high-alert.
The Philippines is battered by an average of 20 typhoons a year, some of them deadly.
Tropical Storm Ketsana and Typhoon Parma struck the northern Philippine island of Luzon within a week of each other in September and October last year, triggering the worst flooding in recent history.
The twin storms killed more than 1,000 people, affected nearly 10 million and caused damage worth 4.3 billion dollars according to the World Bank and international humanitarian agencies.
The US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in its latest advisory Sunday said Megi had undergone "rapid intensification", but could weaken as it moves across mountainous terrain after hitting Luzon.
Megi would then begin to steadily re-intensify as it leaves the country heading for the East Sea (Vietnam), it said.