Millions of people in the Philippines capital hunkered down on Monday as a major storm churned towards the megacity, after claiming at least 23 lives while ripping apart homes in remote island communities.
Soldiers and aid workers rushed to reach devastated coastal villages on Samar island, where Typhoon Hagupit crashed in from the Pacific Ocean at the weekend with winds of 210 kilometres an hour.
In Metro Manila, a sprawling coastal megalopolis of 12 million people that regularly endures deadly flooding, well-drilled evacuation efforts went into full swing as the storm approached on Monday.
"We are on 24-hour alert for floods and storm surges," Joseph Estrada, mayor of Manila, the original city of two million within Metro Manila, told AFP. Thousands of people, mostly the city's poorest residents who live in shanty homes along the coast and riverbanks, crammed into schools and other government evacuation centres across Metro Manila.
"I'm very afraid. Every time there's a storm we have no choice but to evacuate," Soledad Papauran, 60, who works as a waste picker at a Manila landfill, said inside a school being used as an evacuation centre. Across the megacity, schools were suspended, the stock market was closed, many office and government workers were told to stay at home, and dozens of commercial flights were cancelled.
The preparations were part of a massive effort led by President Benigno Aquino to ensure minimum deaths, after a barrage of storms in recent years claimed many thousands of lives. The worst was Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded on land, which claimed at least 7,350 lives as it devastated large parts of the central Philippines in November last year.
To avoid another massive death toll, millions of people in communities directly in the path of Hagupit were sent to evacuation centres or ordered to remain in their homes. Hagupit, the strongest storm to hit the Philippines this year but significantly weaker than Haiyan, caused widespread destruction in remote farming and fishing towns on Samar and other eastern islands.
It has claimed at least 23 lives so far, with 18 of those deaths on Samar, Philippine Red Cross secretary-general Gwendolyn Pang told AFP. Sixteen people drowned during flooding in Borongan, a city on Samar of about 60,000 facing the Pacific Ocean that was almost in Hagupit's direct path, according to Pang. Footage aired by local television network GMA showed children standing beside landslide-choked roads in Borongan today carrying signs reading: "Help us, help us".