MANILA, PHILIPPINES – A powerful storm made landfall in the southeastern Philippines on Thursday and blew through island provinces, where nearly 100,000 people have been evacuated from high-risk areas that could be devastated by flash floods. landslides and high tides, officials said.
Forecasters said Typhoon Rai, with sustained winds of 185 km (115 mph) and gusts of up to 230 km/h (143 mph), blew from the Pacific Ocean into the Siargao Islands. There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage but coast guard and military rescuers are helping residents trapped by rapidly rising waters.
Disaster response officials said about 10,000 villages were in the expected path of the storm, which had a 400-kilometer (248-mile) wide band of rain and was among the strongest to hit the nation. this year.
The Philippine coast guard said it had grounded all ships, leaving nearly 4,000 passengers and workers on ferries and cargo ships stranded at dozens of southern and central ports. Several major domestic flights have been canceled and schools and workplaces closed in the most vulnerable areas.
The government’s disaster response agency said more than 98,000 people had been evacuated to safety. Crowding at evacuation centers further complicated efforts to keep people safely apart after authorities detected the country’s first infections caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus. Booster vaccinations have also been halted in provinces prone to rainstorms.
The Philippines is one of the countries hardest hit in Southeast Asia by the pandemic, with more than 2.8 million infections and more than 50,000 deaths. Quarantine restrictions have been eased and many businesses have been allowed to reopen in recent weeks after a boosted vaccination campaign helped reduce the number of infections to a few hundred from more than 26,000 in September. However, the discovery of omicron infections this week has raised alarm bells and the government has extended its call for people to avoid crowds and get vaccinated immediately.
Governor Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar province said he had suspended vaccinations in his region of nearly half a million people due to the storm. More than 70% of villagers in the province have had at least one shot, and Evardone expressed concern that some vaccines stored in Eastern Samar will expire in a few months.
Given the limited number of evacuation centers in his province, where more than 32,000 people have been moved to safety, it was inevitable, he said.
“Without observing social distancing, it’s going to be really difficult,” Evardone told The Associated Press. “What we do is gather evacuees by family. We don’t mix different people into the same place as a precaution.”
About 20 typhoons make landfall in the Philippines each year. The archipelago is also located in an active Pacific “Ring of Fire”, making it one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.