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Supertyphoon leaves Philippines with as many as 12 dead

Weakened Mangkhut tracks toward Hong Kong and may gain strength

Residents stand by a flooded road following the onslaught of Typhoon Mangkhut in Tuguegarao city in Cagayan Province.   © AP

MANILA (Dow Jones) -- The world's strongest storm this year lashed the northern Philippines and left as many as 12 dead Saturday, but fell short of causing large-scale casualties, in a test of disaster preparation five years after a similar storm killed more than 6,300 people.

Supertyphoon Mangkhut packed sustained winds as high as 170 miles an hour, according to the U.S. military's Joint Typhoon Warning Center, equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane and nearly twice as strong as the 90 mph winds generated by Hurricane Florence, which struck the U.S. hours earlier.

By Saturday evening, Mangkhut had left the Philippines and was churning across the South China Sea at about 18 mph northwest toward the densely populated cities of Hong Kong and Macau as well as coastal mainland China. A direct hit on any of these centers could pose serious risk to human life and property, authorities say.

The death toll had climbed into double digits by Saturday evening and perhaps as high as 12, according to estimates from a Philippine official who spoke with local radio station DZMM. Two were formally announced earlier in the day, both rescue workers who were swept away by a mudslide. Local media reported that also among those killed was a young girl.

Days of evacuations and stockpiling of supplies appeared to have paid off, though more than 64,000 people were taking shelter in evacuation centers while officials began clearing debris from access roads. Some communities were cut off from electricity and communications more than 12 hours after the storm hit.

Mangkhut, known in the Philippines as Ompong, made landfall at 1:40 a.m. local time in the province of Cagayan, an area about 230 miles north of Manila that is accustomed to annual typhoons that sweep over the country on their way to southern China.

While thousands of people were stranded by the storm, there were no immediate signs of the anticipated 6-meter (about 20-foot) storm surge, the giant wave whipped up by strong winds that is often the most destructive part of a typhoon.

Footage posted on social media by people in the affected area showed felled trees, some damaged buildings and rain pelting deserted streets as evacuees huddled in emergency shelters. Branches and debris littered the roads.

Officials had prepared for winds strong enough to rip the roofs from the traditional wood-and-thatch houses that shelter many of the four million people in this poor rural part of the country. In the days before the storm hit, residents reinforced weaker structures by repairing roofs and fittings, and farmers harvested crops early to avoid losing them.

Emergency evacuations took place across the northern provinces in the days ahead of landfall. Airports were closed and disaster teams prepared evacuation centers in public buildings such as schools, where classes have been suspended. Heavy storms often knock out electricity and communications.

The force of Mangkhut's blow to Hong Kong, Macau and coastal mainland China will depend mainly on what happens as the typhoon moves over the water, where it could gain strength as well as shift direction. At its last gauging, the Hong Kong Observatory weather center estimated the storm's maximum sustained winds at around 120 mph -- enough to cause significant damage but slower than readings notched by the storm in the previous 24 hours.

Across Hong Kong, a former British colony of some seven million people accustomed to getting hit by multiple typhoons a year, residents weren't taking chances. At marinas around the island city, sailors were tying down yachts and crossing their fingers for a light hit. Airlines canceled flights and homeowners began taping up windows ahead of the Sunday arrival.

In Macau, a regional gambling center of posh hotels, officials were seeking to prevent a repeat of the severe typhoon that swept through the city last year, killing nine and sparking criticism that city leaders and hotels had been poorly prepared for its severity.

Also potentially in the storm's track are the major manufacturing and trading centers of coastal mainland China, where populations have surged in recent years. Among the installations battening down the hatches: China's Yangjiang Nuclear Power Station, which went into operation in 2014 on the coast.

For the Philippines, the memory of Supertyphoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, remains fresh. The storm struck in November 2013 in the central Philippines, hundreds of miles to the south of where Saturday's storm landed. The city of Tacloban was flattened and thousands in the region lost their lives. Officials were taken by surprise by its ferocity and failed to adequately prepare. The total damage and loss, initially estimated at more than $12.9 billion, crippled the livelihoods of millions more and exposed weaknesses in disaster governance.

Those lessons were put to the test Saturday when Mangkhut struck. In a disaster preparedness meeting before the storm hit, officials said they were ready for loss of communications and for roads to be blocked, problems that had hobbled the response to Haiyan. President Rodrigo Duterte dispatched several senior officials to monitor the situation.

The northern Philippines is struck by an average of 20 tropical storms each year, though few as powerful as Mangkhut. The storms forming in the western Pacific typically chart a route passing over the northern part of Luzon island and head toward southern China and northern Vietnam. 

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