MANILA, Philippines — Half a million Filipinos fled their homes as differing forecasts about the path of a dangerously erratic typhoon – one predicting it will graze the capital, Manila – prompted a wide swath of the country to prepare for a weekend of destructive winds and rain.
Typhoon Hagupit -Filipino for “smash” – was expected to hit the central Philippines late Saturday, lashing parts of a region that was devastated by last year’s Typhoon Haiyan and left more than 7,300 people dead and missing. The typhoon regained strength Saturday but forecasters said it will begin rapidly weakening as it approaches land.
“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 city, said he stocked up on sardines, instant noodles, eggs and water.
Dozens of domestic flights were canceled and inter-island ferry services were suspended. About half a million people have been evacuated in Leyte and Samar provinces, including Tacloban, this time with little prompting from the government, said Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman.
“We’ve not heard of villagers resisting to be evacuated,” regional disaster-response director Blanche Gobenciong said. “Their trauma is still so fresh.”
Television footage showed residents in Tacloban stacking sandbags to block floodwaters. One McDonald’s store also was closed and boarded up. During last year’s typhoon onslaught, most stores and supermarkets in the city were looted by residents as food ran out.
At least 47 of the country’s 81 provinces are considered potentially at high risk from Hagupit, officials said. The first one in its path is Eastern Samar province, where it is expected to make landfall late Saturday. It is then expected to cut across central islands along a route northwest. But its path thereafter is debatable.
The computer models of the 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 the typhoon.
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 city of more than 12 million people. The Philippine agency, known by its acronym PAGASA, projected a more southern path. But both tracks appeared to be coming closer together as it approached land.
The typhoon strengthened again early Saturday but both agencies said it would weaken as it hits land. PAGASA said it was packing winds of 195 kilometers (121 miles) per hour and gusts of 230 kph (143 mph). The U.S. center, using 1-minute average wind speed with higher readings then PAGASA’s 10-minute, said Hagupit was again a super typhoon with maximum sustained winds of 240 kph (149 mph) and gusts of 296 kph (184 mph).
Gobenciong said the unpredictable path of the typhoon made it harder to ascertain which areas would be hit.
“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.”
Hagupit’s erratic behavior prompted the government to call an emergency meeting of mayors of metropolitan Manila. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he’d rather “over-prepare than under-prepare.”
Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada said that authorities have alerted residents. “We are ready,” he said, but pointed out that “these typhoons change direction all the time.”
Haiyan demolished about 1 million houses and displaced some 4 million people in the central Philippines. Hundreds of residents still living in tents in Tacloban have been prioritized in the ongoing evacuation.
Dr. Steven Godby, an expert in natural hazards at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, said the Philippines experiences five to 10 cyclones a year on an average, the most hitting any country.
He said the right oceanic conditions to create deadly typhoons “come together in the western Pacific and put the Philippines in the firing line as a result.”
“Isolated island groups like the Philippines are particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones and the threats come from the high winds, storm surge and heavy rains these storms bring,” he said.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.