Taiwan has cancelled flights and school classes as the strongest typhoon in two years headed for the island and was expected to make a direct hit at the weekend.

Typhoon Soudelor, which is due to make landfall on Saturday, has already claimed its first victims, with three people dead and one missing in choppy waters off the coast of Taiwan's northeastern Yilan county, the coast guard said.

An eight year old girl was also killed after she was swept away by the big waves.

On Friday morning, a security cordon was set up to block tourists from going close to the sea bank.

"I was supposed to come here to see the sunrise, but I couldn't see the sunrise as it was blocked by the heavy clouds. Taiwan is very beautiful," said an unidentified tourist from mainland China.

The high-speed rail and Taipei's metro system were operating as normal on Friday, though train services were expected to be hit on Saturday.

The typhoon has winds of 173km/h close to its centre, said the Central Weather Bureau, making it the strongest storm to threaten the island since 2013's Typhoon Usage.

It has already drawn comparisons to Typhoon Morakot in 2009 which blocked roads, levelled villages and killed dozens.

Typhoons are common at this time of year in the South China Sea and Pacific, picking up strength from warm waters before losing strength over land.

Saipan devastation

As Taiwan prepared to take a direct hit from the typhoon, residents of Saipan - a US territory in the Pacific - were dealing with its devastation five days ago.

Typhoon Soudelor ground through the most populated island in the US territory of the Northern Marianas on Sunday. Residents of Saipan are still without water and electricity and are rationing fuel.

The more usual view of Saipan [Getty Images]

Nearby Tinian got some damage, while Rota was spared, said Gregorio Kilili Camcacho Sablan, the commonwealth's delegate to US Congress. As for the island of Pagan, "No idea" he said. "I have no way to contact Pagan. I haven't seen a storm like this in 20 years."

Soudelor battered Saipan with wind speeds between 160km/h and 195km/h, toppling homes and snapping wooden electricity poles, said Glen Hunter, who has lived on Saipan for 40 years.

That there were no reports of deaths or serious injury "seems almost impossible" said Hunter.

More than 500 people on Saipan are in shelters, according to the Red Cross and a team of volunteers from Guam is expected to arrive on Friday.

In an El Nino year such as this, tropical cyclones are born in this part of the Pacific. This is not the first time this year that the islands of the Marianas, Micronesia and the Marshalls have been damaged by adolescent typhoons.

The last time a major El Nino occurred, causing the formation of 12 super typhoons in the western Pacific, was 1997 – almost 20 years ago. Six have formed so far this year.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies