'Most powerful storm ever to make landfall' batters Philippines; 4 deaths confirmed
By Alexander Smith, NBC News
(NBC) - The most powerful storm ever to make landfall battered the Philippines with winds approaching 200 mph early Friday, killing at least four people and raising fears of widespread damage.
More than one million people fled in search of safety ahead of category-five super typhoon Haiyan, which caused mudslides, flash flooding and a storm surge with waves of up to 30 feet. One expert said that the storm's winds had the potential to "obliterate poorly constructed homes."
At least four people were killed, according to The Associated Press. But with the country's lines of communication cut, officials feared the toll could rise dramatically.
"It is the most powerful storm ever to make landfall," Weather Channel lead meteorologist Michael Palmer told NBC News. "It is as strong a typhoon as you can get, basically."
Haiyan made landfall with winds near 195 mph. Typhoons and cyclones of that magnitude can blow apart storm-proof shelters due to the huge pressure they create, which can suck walls out and blow roofs off buildings.
Authorities in the Philippines earlier warned that 12 million people were at risk.
"The humanitarian impact of Haiyan threatens to be colossal," said Patrick Fuller, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The storm pounded the islands of Leyte and Samar and the northern part of Cebu province felt its wrath early Friday.
Dale Eck, director of the Weather Channel's global forecast center, said that Haiyan had only lingered over the Philippines for two-to-four hours.
"For them, the good news is it hit very quickly so the duration of the extreme winds was short," he said. "However, right now because of the devastation it's going to be slow getting information, but it will be pretty nasty damage."
Earlier, Southern Leyte Governor Roger Mercado told DZBB radio that the typhoon had been "very powerful."
Mercado added that more than 100 coastal homes were flattened, while landslides destroyed houses in the hills.
"We lost power and all roads are impassable because of fallen trees," he said. "We just have to pray."
Mercado noted that local mayors had not called in to report any major damage.
"I hope that means they were spared and not the other way around," Mercado told The Associated Press. "My worst fear is there will be massive loss of lives and property."
The Weather Channel's Palmer said gusts of 220 mph had been recorded. "That is the equivalent of EF4 tornado winds -- even EF5," he added. "You would not be able to stand up, it would knock you off your feet and blow you away. And it's going to obliterate poorly constructed homes and outbuildings. Sturdier buildings will withstand it but with damage."
Despite the strong winds, Palmer warned the storm surge had presented the most danger. "Usually that's what causes the most death and destruction," he said.
The system was heading towards Vietnam and Laos by Friday afternoon. Meteorologists in Vietnam said it could be the country's strongest storm ever. Evacuations were under way, according to state-run Voice of Vietnam radio.
The world's strongest recorded typhoon, cyclone or hurricane to previously make landfall was Hurricane Camille in 1969, which hit Mississippi with 190 mph winds, according to Jeff Masters, a hurricane expert and director of meteorology at Weather Underground.
An average of 20 typhoons slam into the Philippines every year. In 2011, typhoon Washi killed 1,200 people, displaced 300,000 and destroyed more than 10,000 homes. Haiyan is the 24th such storm to batter the Philippines this year.
Typhoon Bopha last year flattened three coastal towns on the southern island of Mindanao, killing 1,100 people and causing damage estimated at more than $1 billion.