MANILA, Philippines – Thousands of people evacuated villages in the central Philippines on Thursday before one of the year's strongest typhoons strikes the region, including a province devastated by an earthquake last month.
Typhoon Haiyan has sustained winds of 134 miles per hour and ferocious gusts of 155 mph and could strengthen over the Pacific Ocean before slamming the eastern province of Samar early Friday, government forecasters said.
The U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii said it was the strongest tropical cyclone in the world this year, although Cyclone Phailin, which hit eastern India on Oct. 12, packed winds of up to 138 mph and stronger gusts.
Facing another possible disaster, President Benigno Aquino III warned people to leave high-risk areas, including 100 coastal communities where forecasters said the storm surge could reach up to 23 feet. He urged seafarers to stay away from choppy seas.
Aquino urged people to stay calm and avoid panic-buying of basic goods and assured the public of war-like preparations: Three C-130 air force cargo planes and 32 military helicopters and planes were on standby, along with 20 navy ships.
"No typhoon can bring Filipinos to their knees if we'll be united," he said in a nationally televised address.
Governors and mayors were supervising the evacuation of landslide- and flood-prone communities in several provinces where the typhoon is expected to pass, said Eduardo del Rosario, head of the government's main disaster-response agency.
Even in southern Misamis Oriental province located farther from the typhoon's expected track, more than 12,000 people abandoned their homes in six coastal towns and a mountain municipality that have been hit by past landslides, said Misamis Oriental Governor Yevgeny Emano, who also suspended school classes.
Aquino ordered officials to aim for zero casualties, a goal often not met in an archipelago lashed by about 20 storms each year, most of them deadly and destructive. Haiyan is the 24th such storm to hit the Philippines this year.
Edgardo Chatto, the governor of Bohol island province in the central Philippines, where an earthquake in October killed more than 200 people, said that soldiers, police and rescue units were helping displaced residents, including thousands still in small tents, move to shelters. Bohol is not forecast to get a direct hit but is expected to be battered by strong wind and rain, government forecaster Jori Loiz said.
Army troops were helping transport food packs and other relief goods in hard-to-reach communities and rescue helicopters are on stand-by, the military said.
"My worst fear is that the eye of this typhoon will hit us. I hope we will be spared," Chatto told The Associated Press by telephone.
Haiyan was forecast to barrel through the country's central region Friday and Saturday before it blows toward the South China Sea over the weekend, heading toward Vietnam. It was not expected to directly hit the densely-populated capital of Manila farther north, but residents in the flood-prone city were jittery, with one suburb suspending classes and authorities ordering giant tarpaulin billboard ads to be removed along the main highway.