One of the strongest storms on record devastated the central Philippines, killing more than 1,200 people before sweeping west toward Vietnam on Saturday, still packing destructive winds capable of blowing away houses and uprooting trees.
A day after Typhoon Haiyan churned through the Philippine archipelago in a straight line from east to west, rescue teams struggled to reach far-flung regions, hampered by washed out roads, many choked with debris and fallen trees.
Fueled by warm ocean temperatures in the western Pacific, Haiyan nearly attained the maximum wind speeds possible for a typhoon. Satellite images showed a storm 700 miles across with textbook characteristics: an unmistakably clear eye surrounded by towering thunderstorms and impeccable symmetry, says the Washington Post.
As the storm approached landfall, the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor estimated its maximum sustained winds at 190 to 195 mph, with gusts to 230 mph.
By those measurements, Haiyan would be comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane in the U.S., nearly in the top category, a 5. If verified, those would be the most powerful on record for any storm that has made landfall.
The typhoon’s sustained winds weakened Saturday to 175 kph (109 mph) with gusts of up to 210 kph (131 mph) as it blew farther away from the Philippines toward Vietnam.
“The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami,” said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, head of the U.N. Disaster Assessment Coordination Team sent to Tacloban, referring to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.
“This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed and the streets are strewn with debris.”
The Philippines Red Cross said it has received reports of 1,200 deaths in two areas devastated by typhoon Haiyan. The agency said that at least 1,000 had been killed in Tacloban and 200 in Samar province.
Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, said the numbers came from preliminary reports by Red Cross teams in Tacloban and Samar, among the most devastated areas hit by typhoon Haiyan on Friday.
“An estimated more than 1,000 bodies were seen floating in Tacloban as reported by our Red Cross teams,” she told Reuters. “In Samar, about 200 deaths. Validation is ongoing.”
She expected a more exact number to emerge after a more precise counting of bodies on the ground in those regions. Witnesses said bodies covered in plastic were lying on the streets. Television footage shows cars piled atop each other.
Authorities in 15 provinces in Vietnam have started to call back boats and prepare for possible landslides. Nearly 300,000 people were moved to safer areas in two provinces alone – Da Nang and Quang Nam – according to the government’s website.
The Philippines has yet to resume communications with officials in Tacloban, a city of about 220,000 that appeared to suffer the worst of the typhoon, but a government official estimated at least 100 were killed and 100 wounded.
Last year, Typhoon Bopha flattened three towns in southern Mindanao, killing 1,100 people and causing damage of more than £60m.