Super Typhoon Goni nears Philippines with 'catastrophic' damage forecast

Legazpi (Philippines) (AFP) –

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Super Typhoon Goni barrelled towards the Philippines Sunday with authorities warning of "catastrophic wind damage" in the region expected to receive the hardest hit, where nearly a million people have been evacuated.

The strongest typhoon of the year so far is expected to slam into Catanduanes Island with maximum sustained wind speeds of 215 kilometres (134 miles) per hour before crossing the country's main island of Luzon, the state weather forecaster said.

The situation in Catanduanes was "extremely dangerous" just hours before landfall, the weather service said in its latest update issued at 2:00 am (1800 GMT Saturday).

"Catastrophic wind damage is expected" in Catanduanes, Camarines Sur and Albay provinces, it said.

Goni -- which intensified into a "super" typhoon as it neared the Philippines -- comes a week after Typhoon Molave hit the same region of the natural disaster-prone archipelago.

That storm killed 22 people and flooded low-lying villages and farmland, before crossing the South China Sea to Vietnam.

"It looks like we will have really strong winds, increasing the chances of widespread flooding and landslides," Mark Timbal, spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, told local broadcaster ABS-CBN on Saturday.

"Storm surges are imminent on our east coast. We are monitoring Mayon and Taal volcanoes for possible volcanic mud flows."

Civil Defense chief Ricardo Jalad said "almost a million" people had left their homes in the Bicol region, which includes the southern part of Luzon and Catanduanes.

Authorities spent Saturday marshalling rescue vehicles, emergency response teams and relief goods before the storm's arrival.

Destructive winds and at times torrential rain are expected in an area that is home to more than 20 million people, the weather service said.

There was a "high risk" of potentially life-threatening storm surges of more than three metres (10 feet) high along parts of the coast, which could inundate low-lying areas, it warned.

- Covid complicates evacuations -

Schools which have been empty since the start of the coronavirus pandemic are being used as emergency shelters as are government-run evacuation centres and gymnasiums.

"Evacuating people is more difficult at this time because of Covid-19," Bicol regional civil defence spokesman Alexis Naz told AFP.

Mary Ann Echague, 23, and her family fled their home in the coastal city of Legazpi to an inland primary school where they were sheltering in a classroom with several other families.

"We fear the wrath of the typhoon," said Echague, who was with her two children, parents and siblings. They had carried with them a portable stove, tinned meat, instant noodles, coffee, bread, blankets and pillows.

"Each time we're hit by a typhoon our house gets damaged, since it's made of wood and galvanised iron roofing," she said.

"We have always managed. We find a way to get by."

Hundreds of people have been left stranded after the coastguard ordered ferries and fishing boats into port in expectation of rough seas throwing up 16-metre waves.

Goni is expected to "weaken considerably" as it crosses Luzon and enters the South China Sea early Monday, the state forecaster said.

The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons every year, which typically wipe out harvests, homes and infrastructure, keeping millions of people perennially poor.

Its deadliest on record was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which unleashed giant waves on the central city of Tacloban and left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.