MANILA– Rescue efforts ramped up in the Philippines Sunday to aid a quarter of a million people caught in the path of Typhoon Mangkhut, as authorities attempted to gauge how many people died in the strongest typhoon so far this year.
A spokesperson for President Rodrigo Duterte told reporters on Sunday that 40 people had died from the typhoon. Spokesman Harry Roque said most of the deaths were due to landslides, mainly in the Cordillera Administrative Region.
However the official death toll, complied by the national disaster agency, still stands at zero as it follows a more stringent criteria for associating deaths with storms, following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
More than 250,000 people were affected by the storm across the country, with around half of those seeking shelter in evacuation centers in the country’s north.
President Duterte traveled the region Sunday to see the damage and recovery operations, presidential Palace Communications Secretary Martin Andanar told CNN.
Typhoon Mangkhut, also known as Ompong, is now pummeling Hong Kong with strong winds and heavy rain, as it crosses into the Chinese mainland.
Hong Kong’s typhoon alert warning is at its highest level, and the city has all but shut down with transport suspended and residents warned to stay indoors.
Mangkhut slams into the Philippines
When Mangkhut made landfall in the Philippines Saturday morning at 1:40 a.m. local time, the storm was packing winds of up to 270 kph (165 mph), 120 kph (75 mph) stronger than Hurricane Florence that hit North Carolina.
Rosbin Martin, 54, decided not to leave her house in Buguey, a village on the northern coast of Luzon, for safer ground. She said she and her family prayed as winds stronger than any previous typhoon battered the area.
“The wind was going faster, stronger. We were not that scared because we prayed. We trusted our Almighty Father to save us since we are Catholic,” she told CNN.
The roof of Martin’s house was damaged but that was nothing compared to the complete destruction of the local gymnasium.
Mary Anne Millare, 48, also opted to sit out the storm with her husband and son in the resort where she works as a caretaker just outside Buguey.
“We are sandwiched here between the river and the West Philippine Sea. We were so afraid. We thought the building we were in would collapse. The wind was very strong. But we thank God the water did not go up,” she said.
Millare said she didn’t evacuate because she feared looters would raid their home. She’s not sure how she’s going to afford the repairs.
Death and damage
It’ll be days if not weeks before the Philippines assesses the full impact of Typhoon Mangkhut.
However, while the death toll is likely to rise, some relief was expressed Saturday that the storm didn’t appear to have caused as much destruction as other recent, less powerful storms.
More than 6,000 people died when Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines five years ago, the worst in a generation. That storm displaced nearly 4 million people. Many of the survivors ran short of food, water and medicine almost immediately.
The two people who were reportedly killed by Mangkhut were rescue workers, said Ricardo Jalad, executive director of the Philippines National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. Both victims were women, killed when a rain-drenched hillside collapsed on them, according to the French news agency AFP.
As of Saturday, the storm had caused 51 landslides in the country’s north. Search crews are looking for people reported missing in the mountainous Cordillera region, Tolentino said.
Earlier on Saturday, in the provincial capital Tuguegarao, strong winds lashed buildings, pulling off entire roofs and throwing large chunks of debris into the air.
Tuguegarao airport in northern Luzon, a vital transportation hub, was damaged in the storm, forcing the cancellation of more than 100 local and international flights, according to the Department of Transportation.
Authorities were assessing the damage and trying to repair communication systems, the Philippines News Agency reported.
Storm chaser James Reynolds said Sunday that the airport seemed to be being used as a military base to ferry supplies to affected regions.
The Philippines military had planned to send two C-130 airplanes and 10 helicopters to Cagayan province for typhoon relief and rescue efforts, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana via Philippine News Agency (PNA).
Lorenzana said they’d fly north carrying aid and allowing rescuers to reach remote areas of the mountainous north as soon as the weather improved.
Heading to China
The Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) urged the public to stay on the alert as Mangkhut’s eye traveled toward Hong Kong and Southern China. Residents taped up windows and secured anything that could take flight in strong winds.
Mangkhut was recorded packing sustained winds of 173 kilometers per hour (107 miles per hour) and guests up to 223 kilometers per hour (138 miles per hour) as the storm’s eye passed south of the city in the early afternoon, according to the HKO.
The storm has since departed Hong Kong, but is expected to make landfall on mainland China sometime Sunday evening, the observatory said in a bulletin.
Flights from Hong Kong International Airport were delayed or canceled Sunday, disrupting the travel plans of thousands of passengers. Travelers were urged to check with their airlines.
Train, bus and ferry services to the airport were also suspended, though the airport remains open for passengers who have nowhere else to go.
Typhoon Mangkhut will make another landfall on Sunday night in the Chinese province of Guangdong near the cities of Yangjiang and Zhanjiang.
From there the system will continue to move westward and will rain itself out over northern Vietnam, which could lead to some flooding there early next week.