By Rosemarie Francisco
MANILA (Reuters) - More than half a million people in the Philippines have fled from a powerful typhoon in one of the world's biggest peacetime evacuations, as the storm threatens to wreak more destruction on areas still bearing the scars of a super typhoon 13 months ago.
Residents of Samar island said they were experiencing strong winds, heavy rain and blackouts on Saturday as Typhoon Hagupit churned towards eastern provinces of the archipelago.
The storm had weakened to category 3, two notches below "super typhoon", but could still unleash huge destruction with torrential rain and potentially disastrous storm surges of up to 4.5 meters (15 ft).
"Ruby's lashing will be severe," Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas told government radio, referring to the local name for Typhoon Hagupit. "Let's be alert. Let's evacuate to prevent any harm to your families."
With winds of up to 175 kph (110 mph) near the center and gusts of up to 220 kph (137 mph), the storm was moving slowly at 13 kph (8 mph), the weather bureau PAGASA said, and was expected to hit Eastern Samar province between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. (5-7 a.m. EST).
"The wind feels like there's a huge electric fan blowing air from the Pacific," said Roxas, speaking from Eastern Samar.
Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific canceled about 100 flights to central and southern Philippines on Saturday.
More than 616,000 residents of low-lying villages and landslide-prone areas have fled to schools, civic centers, town halls, gyms and churches, the national disaster agency said.
At least 50 municipalities in the central Philippines and the southern part of the country's main Luzon island were at risk of storm surges, with the eye of the storm set to cross five provinces, the Science and Technology department said.
The typhoon was unlikely to hit the capital Manila, home to around 12 million people, the agency said.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva said 200,000 people had been evacuated in the central island province of Cebu alone.
"Typhoon Hagupit is triggering one of the largest evacuations we have ever seen in peacetime," said spokesman Denis McClean.
Relief agency Refugees International said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" that evacuation centers may not be safe.
"A damage assessment of designated evacuation centers in typhoon-affected areas indicated that in some places – such as Eastern Samar, where Hagupit is headed – less than 10 percent of evacuation centers were likely to withstand future typhoons," the group said.
The eastern islands of Samar and Leyte, worst-hit by 250 kph (155 mph) winds and storm surges brought by Typhoon Haiyan in November last year, are in the firing line again.
"There has been a tremendous amount of learning from last year," said Greg Matthews, emergency response advisor at the International Rescue Committee. "There have been reports from our field officers and partners that people are evacuating themselves. They are aware of the situation."
Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall, left more than 7,000 dead or missing and more than 4 million homeless or with damaged houses. About 25,000 people in Eastern Samar and Leyte still live in tents, shelters and bunkhouses.
"I am afraid and scared," said Teresita Aban, a 58-year-old housewife from Sta. Rita, in Samar province, wiping away tears and trembling as she spoke to Reuters at an evacuation center.
"We're prepared but still fearful, we haven't finished repairing our house, it still has tarpaulin patches and here comes another storm."
Soldiers were deployed to urban centers, particularly in Tacloban City in Leyte, where massive looting broke out after Haiyan last year.
"The soldiers will help our police counterparts in maintaining peace and order, and prevent looting incidents," said Colonel Restituto Padilla Jr, armed forces spokesman.
AccuWeather Global Weather Center said more than 30 million people would feel the impact of the typhoon across the Philippines.
(Additional reporting by Jazmin Bonifacio in Samar, Neil Jerome Morales and Erik dela Cruz in Manila and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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