Super typhoon menaces Asia with path that risks US$120 billion in damage

Fallen trees lie on the ground in front of a destroyed home in Cagayan province, the Philippines. (Bloomberg pic)

MANILA: Super Typhoon Mangkhut battered the Philippines with gales and torrential rains, toppling power lines, triggering landslides and damaging an airport before heading toward China’s Guangdong coastline and Hong Kong.

The world’s most powerful storm of the year ripped into Cagayan province in the northern Philippines with winds of up to 269 kilometers (167 miles) per hour. By US standards it was a Category 5 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the US Navy and Air Force’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. It’s forecast to cross the South China Sea and strike Guangdong by Sunday.

If the typhoon stays its course, Mangkhut could cause about US$120 billion in damage in China and Hong Kong — said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia. In the Philippines, economic losses could reach 6.6% of gross domestic product, or more than US$20 billion, he said.

Philippine authorities are finding it difficult to reach areas hardest hit by the storm. At least five roads and bridges in the north of the country are impassable following landslides, while gales shattered windows and collapsed the ceiling of an airport in Cagayan province. Winds and rain are preventing government agencies from assessing the full extent of damage, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a televised conference. There have been no reports of casualties so far, said Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman.

Mangkhut, named after a Thai fruit, weakened after hitting land, and now has maximum sustained winds of 213 kilometers per hour, according to the JTWC. It’s expected to be 101 nautical miles from Hong Kong by midday local time on Sunday.

In the Philippines, authorities have evacuated about 56,000 people, disaster management agency head Ricardo Jalad told CNN on Saturday morning. Almost 1 million people are living in coastal areas, or have homes made of light materials, along the storm’s path, Edgar Posadas, spokesman of the disaster-monitoring agency, earlier said.

Authorities are releasing water from several dams, which is likely to flood more areas on the main Luzon island, the weather bureau said. Strong winds cut communication lines in the northern province of Cagayan, causing the local government to lose contact with far-flung areas where the typhoon made landfall, Governor Manuel Mamba told CNN.

Manila Electric Co. said 430,000 customers in the capital region and nearby provinces are without electricity. Six transmission lines in Luzon were toppled by the storm. At least 128 local and international flights have been canceled, while 4,688 passengers are stranded in various seaports, the disaster risk monitoring agency said.

Travel disrupted

Airlines cancelled more than 500 flights, disrupting travel from Hong Kong to Japan. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said in a statement it will ground 400 flights in the next three days. Its unit Cathay Dragon said it won’t be flying Sunday.

AirAsia Group Bhd had cancelled at least 22 flights as of Saturday morning, upsetting travelers from Manila to Shenzhen and Macau, according to a Facebook post. Philippines Airlines Inc. scrapped 41 Saturday flights, including those to Hangzhou and Tokyo, it said on Facebook.

A Strong Wind Signal No. 3 is set to be issued later Saturday, according to the Hong Kong Observatory. The advisory urges people to secure property and ships ahead of a storm with high winds.

There’s a chance Mangkhut will weaken as it approaches China, said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Weather Underground, an IBM company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Storms lose strength when they cross land and it’s possible Mangkhut, after hitting the Philippines, won’t be able to recover.

Mangkhut, which went ashore at about 1.40 am Hong Kong time in the Philippines’ Cagayan province, could affect as many as 30.5 million people in its path across Asia, according to the United Nation’s Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System. About 20 cyclones pass through disaster-prone Philippines each year. Super Typhoon Haiyan, which packed winds of as high as 315 kilometers per hour, killed more than 6,300 people there in 2013.

The storm’s landfall came hours after Hurricane Florence in the Atlantic hit the North Carolina coast in the US. At its peak, the hurricane had 140 mile-per-hour winds, the equivalent of a Category 4 storm on the US Saffir-Simpson scale. Florence has since been downgraded to a tropical storm.