At least 12 people have died in the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year, after the storm swept across the archipelago uprooting trees, toppling power poles and flooding villages.
More than 300,000 people fled their homes and beachfront resorts as Typhoon Rai pummelled the southern and central regions of the country on Friday, knocking out communications in some areas and tearing roofs off buildings.
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“Siargao island is heavily damaged,” Ricardo Jalad, executive director of the national disaster agency told a briefing.
Jalad said 12 people have been reported killed during the storm, which lashed the popular tourist destination of Palawan island after ravaging the Visayas and the southern island of Mindanao.
“We are seeing people walking in the streets, many of them shell-shocked,” ABS-CBN correspondent Dennis Datu reported from the hard-hit city of Surigao, which is on the northern tip of Mindanao and near Siargao.
“All buildings sustained heavy damage, including the provincial disaster office. It looks like it’s been hit by a bomb.”
According to AP, one man died after being hit by debris while local media reported extensive damage to infrastructure.
Datu said the main roads leading into the coastal city had been cut off by landslides, fallen trees and toppled power poles.
Describing Typhoon Rai as “one of the most powerful typhoons to ever hit the southern Philippines”, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said the storm had “torn houses to pieces”, “smashed” villages and left parts of several cities underwater.
More than 140,000 people have been severely affected, the organisation said, adding that its emergency workers are racing to rescue people trapped by severe floods that have submerged large areas of cities including Cagayan de Oro, Bohol and Kabankalan.
“The full picture is only just starting to emerge, but it is clear there is widespread devastation,” said Alberto Bocanegra, head of the IFRC.
Communications were still down in Siargao, which took the brunt of the storm, and Bocanegra said the organisation had “grave fears” for people there.
Philippine Coast Guard shared photos on Twitter of damaged roofs and uprooted trees on the island popular with surfers and holidaymakers, while aerial footage showed swathes of rice fields under water.
Surigao City Mayor Ernesto Matugas told ABS-CBN that Rai ravaged the city of around 170,000 people for several hours, causing “severe” damage.
“The wind was very strong,” Matugas said.
“Everything sustained damage – roofs blown off, access roads blocked by landslides.”
Officials from the national disaster agency said earlier that initial reports suggested the overall damage was “not that massive” and they were not expecting “many casualties”.
“The damage was not as big as compared to previous typhoons of the same strength,” Casiano Monilla, the deputy administrator for operations, told a briefing.
In the Western Visayas city of Iloilo, Mayor Jerry Trenas told the Associated Press news agency that at least one resident had been killed when she was hit by a cluster of bamboo blown down by the storm.
“I have never experienced such ferocity of the wind in my life – and we were not even directly hit,” he said, adding that the coastal city was without power and was struggling with erratic cellphone signals.
Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan, reporting from the capital, Manila, said “officials are struggling to assess the extent of the typhoon damage as telecommunications lines in the affected provinces remain cut off”.
“We have very little information at the moment, but the little that’s trickled out appears quite grim,” she said. “We are seeing people stranded on rooftops, waiting for rescue. Homes submerged and airports non-operational. The government is saying they are looking at re-establishing communication lines in order to fully assess where or how to send aid to those who need it most.”
Hundreds of thousands seek shelter
Locally known as Typhoon Odette, the super typhoon was packing maximum sustained winds of 195 kilometres an hour (120 miles) when it made landfall on the central island of Siargao on Thursday.
Wind speeds had eased to 155 km/h by Friday as the storm moved over the western province of Palawan. It is expected to emerge over the South China Sea on Saturday.
At least four deaths were recorded in the central Philippine province of Negros Occidental on Friday, while three more were reported in the provinces of Surigao del Norte in the east, Bukidnon in the south and Western Visayas in the centre.
Eugenio Jose “Bong” Lacson, the governor of Negros Occidental, was quoted as saying the typhoon had also destroyed the emergency triage centre at a local hospital, and that the coastguard and police were struggling to rescue people from a district in the heart of Kabankalan City, where rising waters from the nearby Ilog river were threatening elevated structures, too.
The mayor of Surigao City, Ernesto Matugas, told the network that Rai had ravaged the city of about 170,000 people for several hours on Thursday, causing “severe” damage.
“The wind was very strong,” Matugas said. “Everything sustained damage – roofs blown off, access roads blocked by landslides.”
In the central island province of Bohol, 37-year-old Joel Darunday told AFP that the “devastation is hard to explain”.
The tour operator said he had been hunkered down at home with his family when the storm ripped off the roof.
“It was very strong. The last time I experienced something like this was back in the 1980s,” he said.
The governor of Bohol, meanwhile, told a local radio station that many residents were trapped on their roofs by floodwaters for a second day in the riverside town of Loboc.
“Hundreds of families are trapped on the rooftops right now,” Arthur Yap told DZBB radio, adding that residents were exposed to rain and wind overnight. “We need first responders. What’s important now is to save lives.”
It was unclear what happened in other towns in the hard-hit province, which still had no electricity, Yap said.
Northwest of Bohol, in the central province of Cebu, photos showed roadside buildings in the city of Lapu-Lapu flattened by the storm, while sheets of corrugated iron roofing and branches littered streets.
Rai is hitting the Philippines late in the typhoon season, with most cyclones developing between July and October.
Scores of flights were cancelled across the country and dozens of ports temporarily closed as the weather bureau warned several-metre-high storm surges could cause “life-threatening flooding” in low-lying coastal areas.
Scientists have long warned that typhoons are becoming more powerful, and strengthening more rapidly, as the world becomes warmer because of human-driven climate change.
A super typhoon is the equivalent of a category five hurricane in the United States.
The Earth tends to experience about five storms of that power a year.
The Philippines, ranked as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, is hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons every year, which typically wipe out harvests, homes and infrastructure in already impoverished areas.
The deadliest cyclone on record in the Philippines was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.