Strongest typhoon in four years hits Philippines

At least one dead and 20 missing; 140,000 evacuated from coast; cyclone could head to Vietnam where heavy flooding has already resulted in 30 deaths.

philippines typhoon_311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
philippines typhoon_311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
CAUAYAN, Philippines — Super Typhoon Megi became the strongest cyclone in years to buffet the Philippines on Monday, while flooding in Vietnam swept away a bus and left 20 people missing, including a girl pulled from her mother's grasp by the raging waters.
The huge storm striking the northern Philippines drowned at least one man and was expected to add to what already has been heavy rains striking much of the region, including in China where authorities evacuated 140,000 people from a coastal province ahead of the typhoon.
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It could head later to Vietnam, where 30 deaths from flooding already have been reported in recent days, in addition to the bus passengers snatched by surging currents Monday and feared dead.
Megi packed sustained winds of 140 miles (225 kilometers) per hour and gusts of 162 mph (260 kph) as it made landfall midday Monday at Palanan Bay in Isabela province, felling trees and utility poles and cutting off power, phone and Internet services in many areas. It appeared to be losing some of its power while crossing the mountains of the Philippines' main northern island of Luzon.
With more than 3,600 Filipinos riding out the typhoon in sturdy school buildings, town halls, churches and relatives' homes, roads in and out of coastal Isabela province, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Manila, were deserted and blocked by collapsed trees and power lines.
One man who had just rescued his water buffalo slipped and fell into a river and probably drowned, said Bonifacio Cuarteros, an official with the Cagayan provincial disaster agency.
As it crashed ashore, the typhoon whipped up huge waves. There was zero visibility and radio reports said the wind was so powerful that people could not take more than a step at a time. Ships and fishing vessels were told to stay in ports, and several domestic and international flights were canceled.
Thousands of military reserve officers and volunteers were on standby, along with helicopters, including six Chinooks that were committed by US troops holding war exercises with Filipino soldiers near Manila, said Benito Ramos, a top disaster-response official.
"This is like preparing for war," Ramos, a retired army general, told The Associated Press. "We know the past lessons, and we're aiming for zero casualties."
In July, an angry President Benigno Aquino III fired the head of the weather bureau for failing to predict that a typhoon would hit Manila. That storm killed more than 100 people in Manila and outlying provinces.
This time, authorities sounded the alarm early and ordered evacuations and the positioning of emergency relief and food supplies days before the typhoon hit. The capital was expected to avoid any direct hit, though schools were closed.
Megi was the most powerful typhoon to hit the Philippines in four years, government forecasters say. A 2006 howler with 155-mph (250-kph) winds set off mudslides that buried entire villages, killing about 1,000 people.
In central Vietnam, officials said 20 people on a bus were swept away Monday by strong currents from a river flooded by previous rains unrelated to Megi, while another 17 managed to save themselves by swimming or clinging to trees or power poles.
The bus was traveling from the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong to the capital, Hanoi, when it was yanked off the country's main highway, said local official Nguyen Hien Luong, head of Nghi Xuan district in Ha Tinh province.
One woman survived by treading water against the current for about 3 1/2 hours, but was forced to let go of her daughter due to exhaustion before rescuers reached her. The child remains missing.
Officials said 30 other people died in central Vietnam from flooding over the weekend, and five remain missing.
Megi could add to the misery.
"People are exhausted," Vietnamese disaster official Nguyen Ngoc Giai said by telephone from Quang Binh province. "Many people have not even returned to their flooded homes from previous flooding, while many others who returned home several days ago were forced to be evacuated again."
China's National Meteorological Center said Megi was expected to enter the South China Sea on Tuesday, threatening southeasterern coastal provinces. The center issued its second-highest alert for potential "wild winds and huge waves," warning vessels to take shelter and urging authorities to brace for emergencies.
Floods triggered by heavy rains forced nearly 140,000 people to evacuate from homes in the southern island province of Hainan, where heavy rains left thousands homeless over the weekend, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday.
Thailand also reported flooding that paralyzed parts of the country, submerging thousands of homes and vehicles and halting train service. No casualties were reported, but nearly 100 elephants were evacuated from a popular tourist attraction north of the capital.