At least three people have died after Typhoon Mangkhut unleashed ferocious winds and rain in the Philippines, damaging an airport vital to the transport of humanitarian aid and forcing tens of thousands to flee.
Strong winds continued to batter provinces in northern Luzon on Saturday morning, making it difficult to assess damage and casualties from the typhoon. Power and communication lines are down in several areas.
At least two emergency workers were killed in landslides caused by the typhoon, the government announced in an afternoon briefing on Saturday as updates from the ground started to trickle in.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said: “There is bad news. There are two deaths.” Another death was confirmed shortly after.
Ricardo Jalad, the civil defence chief, said the initial casualties were reported from the mountainous Cordillera region, adding that there were already 41 incidents of landslides reported in the region.
In Baggao town in Cagayan where the typhoon made landfall, three power towers had been brought down, the defence secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, said. Television reports showed how the typhoon ripped off roofs and destroyed farms. Emergency workers are repairing Tuguegarao airport in northern Cagayan province after it was left inoperable.
The government has warned of possible storm surges of up to six metres as well as massive flooding and landslides as downpours caused rivers to overflow.
Several dams have been opened to release water, prompting more warnings of flooding especially in central Luzon, a natural catchment area that produces the most rice in the country.
On Saturday morning the eye of the typhoon headed out to sea from Ilocos Norte province, on the north-western tip of the country.
The storm destroyed crops such as rice and corn and blew the roofs off houses since it made landfall before dawn in Cagayan province, with gusts of up 255kmh.
More than 5 million people are at risk from the storm, which the Hawaii-based Joint Typhoon Warning Center earlier categorised as a super typhoon with gusts equivalent to a category 5 Atlantic hurricane. In Cagayan’s capital city of Tuguegarao, tin roofs and other debris hurtled through the air and store signs crashed to the ground.
With a rain cloud band 560 miles wide, combined with seasonal monsoon rains, there are still fears the typhoon could trigger landslides and flash floods. Storm warnings were raised in 25 provinces across Luzon, restricting sea and air travel.
Ricardo Jalad, the country’s civil defence chief, told an emergency meeting led by the president, Rodrigo Duterte, that about 4.2 million people were vulnerable to the most destructive effects near the typhoon’s 78-mile eye. Nearly 48,000 houses in those high-risk areas are made of light materials and vulnerable to Mangkhut’s winds.
Government forecaster Rene Paciente said that even if the typhoon weakened slightly after slamming ashore, its winds would remain very destructive. “It can lift cars, you can’t stand, you can’t even crawl against that wind,” Paciente said late on Friday in Manila.
Across the north, residents covered glass windows with wooden boards, strengthened houses with rope and braces and moved fishing boats to safety.
Manuel Mamba, the governor of Cagayan, said evacuations of residents from risky coastal villages and island municipalities north of the province of 1.2 million people had started and school classes were cancelled.
“The weather here is still good but we’re moving them now because it’s very important that when it comes, people will be away from peril,” Mamba said, adding that a change in the typhoon’s track had prompted authorities to rapidly reassess where to redeploy emergency teams and supplies.
Ninia Grace Abedes abandoned her bamboo hut and took her four children to a school building serving as an emergency shelter. The 33-year-old laundrywoman said the 2016 typhoon blew away their hut, which they abandoned before the storm hit. “If we didn’t, all of us would be dead,” Abedes said.
Duterte, who cancelled his appearance at a missile test firing aboard a navy ship off northern Bataan province, asked cabinet officials from the north to help oversee disaster response work if needed, but told reporters it was too early to consider seeking foreign aid. “It would depend on the severity of the crisis,” Duterte said. “If it flattens everything, maybe we need to have some help.”
The typhoon is approaching at the start of the rice and corn harvesting season in Cagayan, a major agricultural producer, and farmers were scrambling to save what they could of their crops. Officials said other northern provinces started evacuating residents from high-risk areas, including in northern mountain provinces prone to landslides.
On Guam, where Mangkhut passed, residents dealt with flooded streets, downed trees and widespread power outages. Government agencies were conducting damage assessments and clearing roads, according to the Pacific Daily News. About 80% of the US territory was without power but it was restored by Thursday morning.
Mangkhut, a Thai word for the mangosteen fruit, is the 15th storm this year to batter the Philippines, which is hit by about 20 a year and is considered one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries.
The storm is predicted to move on to China’s heavily populated southern coast this weekend. In Hong Kong, preparations were under way on Friday, though the storm was not expected to hit until Sunday. The Hong Kong Observatory warned it would bring “significantly deteriorating weather”on Sunday and warned residents to take precautions.