MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A ferocious and dangerously erratic typhoon blew closer to the Philippines on Friday, as differing forecasts about its path — 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. Still, the good news was that the typhoon was weakening as it blew closer to the coast.
“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.
In Tacloban, where Haiyan’s tsunami-like storm surges left thousands dead and wiped out entire villages, and in outlying provinces, about half a million people have been moved from high-risk villages to emergency shelters and safer grounds, Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman said.
“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 MacDonald’s store also was closed and boarded up. Most stores and supermarkets in the city were looted by residents in the aftermath of Haiyan when food, water and other supplies were damaged or destroyed by the storm surge that inundated Tacloban.
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. It is then expected to cut across central islands along a route north. 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 paths for the typhoon.
The U.S. agency said Hagupit (pronounced HA’-goo-pit) may veer north 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.
Also, both agencies said the typhoon is slowly losing strength. PAGASA said it is now packing winds of 195 kilometers (121 miles) per hour and gusts of 230 kph (143 mph). The U.S. center in Hawaii downgraded the typhoon’s status from a super typhoon and said it was expected to continue losing strength with winds dropping to 175 kph (108 mph) by Sunday morning.
“Although it’s been reported that the typhoon has lost strength, it doesn’t mean that our readiness will also weaken,” said Alexander Pama, who heads the country’s disaster-response agency.
Haunted by the country’s ordeal with Haiyan, which caught people unprepared to deal with its ferocity, authorities and villagers seemed readier this time to respond to the impending crisis.
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.