Super Typhoon Haiyan, among the most powerful storms ever recorded, crashed across the central islands of the Philippines Friday, killing at least four people and forcing nearly 750,000 people to flee from their homes.
Widespread power outages were reported. But because communications in the Philippines were cut-off, it remained difficult to determine the full extent of casualties and damage. Still, the nation appeared to avoid major disaster as it blew away from major population areas before wreaking more damage.
Haiyan had sustained winds of 155 mph with gusts as high as 235 mph, according to the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The center of the storm was moving away from the Philippines and into the South China Sea, but high winds were still battering the country.
By early Saturday morning local time, the center of the storm was located to the west of the Philippines, about 700 miles from Da Nang, Vietnam. It's expected to hit Vietnam on Sunday with winds of about 125 mph, which is the strength of a Category 3 hurricane.
Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the typhoon-prone Philippines, affected a huge sweep of the country. At least two people were electrocuted in storm-related accidents, one person was killed by a fallen tree and another was struck by lightning, official reports said.
Southern Leyte Gov. Roger Mercado said the typhoon triggered landslides that blocked roads, uprooted trees and ripped roofs off houses around his residence.
The dense clouds and heavy rains made the day seem almost as dark as night, he said.
"When you're faced with such a scenario, you can only pray, and pray and pray," Mercado said in a telephone interview, adding that mayors in the province had not called in to report any major damage.
"I hope that means they were spared and not the other way around," he said. "My worst fear is there will be massive loss of lives and property."
The category-5 storm made landfall Friday morning at Guiuan, a small city in Samar province in the eastern Philippines.
Over 12 million people live in the storm's path, including Cebu City, with a population of about 2.5 million, and Bohol island, where a major earthquake last month killed over 200 people and left thousands homeless and highly vulnerable in tents. The typhoon was expected to skirt central Manila and fully exit the Philippines by Saturday morning local time, en route for the South China Sea, Vietnam and China.
President Benigno Aquino said Thursday his administration had made war-like preparations, with air force planes, helicopters and navy ships on standby. Over one million people fled their homes ahead of the storm as the government announced evacuation plans in many areas. With at least 20 typhoons hitting the Philippines every year, its people are familiar with nature's power, but none have experienced what some meteorologists have called the most powerful typhoon ever to make landfall.
The affected areas include islands loved by travelers around the world. Last month, Conde Nast Traveler magazine named Cebu and Bohol in its list of the Top 5 Islands in Asia. In Cebu city Friday evening, the wind and rain had eased, electricity had been restored and residents were emerging to assess the damage, said Sarah Adlawan, a saleswoman at the Cebu Northwinds Hotel.
Haiyan was be the fourth typhoon to hit the Philippines this year and the third Category 5 typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines since 2010, says meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground. Just last year, Super Typhoon Bopha killed more than 1,900 people in the Philippines when it hit on Dec. 3, the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history.
"The Philippines lie in the most tropical cyclone-prone waters on Earth, and rarely escape a year without experiencing a devastating typhoon," says Masters A tropical cyclone is an all-encompassing term that includes typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones, which have different names depending on where they form.
Since 1970, the Philippines has been hit by more tropical cyclones than any country on earth, except for China, according to the National Hurricane Center.
On average, about 30 tropical cyclones form in the western Pacific Ocean each year, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center reports. According to data from the warning center, an October record of seven typhoons developed in the western Pacific Ocean last month.
That doesn't include Cyclone Phailin, which became the strongest system to make landfall in India since 1999, coming ashore in the eastern state of Odisha in October, killing at least 44 people. Storms that form in the Indian Ocean – a separate "basin" from the Western Pacific — are known as cyclones.
Rowena Pinky Jumamoy, a member of the Filipino Association in Richmond, Va. (FAACV) and a native of Inabang, Bohol, one of the provinces hit the hardest by Haiyan, made contact with Tian Cempron, a conservation fellow of the marine sanctuary project. "As of this morning, the news is that In one coastal village alone at least 30 houses were wiped out," Jumamoy said.
Imelda Hofmeister, of Oshkosh, Wis., spent Friday morning on the phone with family in Illinois that had reached her parents in Lianga, a southern Filipino city in Surigao del Sur. They were spared from the typhoon's path, but still had not had any contact from family further north in Tacloban, Cebu and Ormoc which were harder hit.
"We haven't heard anything – good or bad news from our cousins. Normally we let the family know that status through Facebook messages and we know that my parents and immediate family is OK," Hofmeister said. "But further north and we know there will be a ton of damage since most of the houses are built so close to the water."
Though she hoped her family is physically safe, Hofmeister said the lightweight pole buildings and tin roofs are not built to sustain the winds that hit the islands.
"I checked into our hotel with my family Thursday night as we live by the coast, and were worried because we heard on the radio this would be the strongest ever typhoon," she said. "The winds did not feel too strong today, but I have no idea if my home is okay," said Adlawan, who planned to return there Friday night.
"The government was well-prepared for this typhoon and informed the people," so many could evacuate low-lying areas, she said. "Thank God, all my family are okay."
In this strongly Catholic country, clergy nationwide have been praying to reduce the storm's expected devastation. Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, also the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, asked bishops and priests to lead the people in praying the Oratio Imperata, or Obligatory Prayer, used when calamity threatens.
It paid off, said Hildren Mallete, receptionist at the Casablanca Hotel in Legazpi City, Albay province. While Legazpi suffered a blackout early Friday morning, the wind and rain were not as strong as residents had feared, said Mallete. "The priests have been saying prayers from yesterday to today, and that helped our city. The power of prayer, it helped a lot."
Contributing: Korina Lopez, USA TODAY, Nick Penzenstadler, The Post-Crescent in Appleton WI., and Associated Press.