MANILA, Philippines – Haunted by Typhoon Haiyan's massive devastation last year, more than 600,000 people fled Philippine villages and the military went on full alert Sunday to brace for a powerful storm only hours away from the country's eastern coast.
Typhoon Hagupit — Filipino for "smash" or "lash" — was expected to slam into the central Philippines Sunday morning and hammer parts of a region where Haiyan's tsunami-like storm surges and ferocious winds left more than 7,300 people dead and missing in November last year. The typhoon slightly weakened Saturday but remained dangerously powerful and erratic.
"We're on red alert so the entire Armed Forces is being mobilized for this typhoon," Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, head of the 120,000-strong military, told a news conference after discussing last-minute preparations.
Army troops deployed to supermarkets and major roads in provinces in the typhoon's path to prevent looting and chaos and clear debris, all of which slowed the government's response last year, Catapang said.
Although it's unlikely to reach Haiyan's unprecedented strength, forecasters said Hagupit's maximum sustained winds of 185 kilometer (115 miles) per hour and gusts of 220 kph (137 mph) were strong enough to set off deadly storm surges and landslides and cause heavy damage to communities and agriculture.
In central Tacloban city, where Haiyan's storm surges killed thousands and leveled villages, news of the approaching typhoon rekindled painful memories among survivors. Many readily fled to storm shelters, a sports stadium and churches even before authorities urged them to evacuate.
"I'm scared," said Haiyan survivor Jojo Moro. "I'm praying to God not to let another disaster strike us again. We haven't recovered from the first."
The 42-year-old businessman, who lost his wife, daughter and mother last year in Tacloban, said he stocked up on sardines, instant noodles, eggs and water.
More than 600,000 people have been moved to safety, including in Tacloban. A U.N. humanitarian agency spokesman, Denis McClean, said in Geneva it was one of the largest peace time evacuations in Philippine history — similar to the 1 million people who were moved last year along India's coastline before Cyclone Phailin hit.
Nearly 100 domestic flights have been canceled and inter-island ferry services suspended, stranding thousands.
"We've not heard of villagers resisting to be evacuated," regional disaster-response director Blanche Gobenciong said. "Their trauma is still so fresh."
In Tacloban, residents stacked sandbags to block floodwaters. One McDonald's store was closed and boarded up to prevent a repetition of Haiyan's deluge that shattered glass panes and doors of business establishments, allowing looting by desperate survivors.
Disaster preparations widened after two agencies tracking the typhoon closely — the U.S. military's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii and the Philippine weather agency — predicted different directions for Hagupit.
The U.S. agency said Hagupit (pronounced HA'-goo-pit) may veer northwest after coming inland and sweep past the southern edge of Manila, a capital city of more than 12 million people. The Philippine agency, known by its acronym PAGASA, projected a more southern path.
Regional disaster-response director Blanche Gobenciong said the unpredictable path made it harder to ascertain which areas would be hit, but added that everybody "should prepare for the worst."
"We have a zero-casualty target," she said. "Just one loss of life will really sadden us all and make us wonder what went wrong."
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano and Jim Gomez contributed to this report.