MANILA, Philippines – A tropical storm gained strength and developed into a typhoon Thursday as it headed toward an eastern Philippine region ravaged last year by flash floods and volcanic mudslides that killed more than 1,000 people, officials said.
Typhoon Mitag was packing 75 mph winds with gusts of up to 94 mph as it blew westward from the Philippine Sea toward the Bicol region midday, chief government forecaster Nathaniel Cruz said.
It could become a “super typhoon,” with winds of more than 138 mph, by the time it makes landfall, expected this weekend, he said.
Recent rains have already saturated the ground around Mayon volcano in Bicol, and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, worried about a repeat of last year`s disaster, ordered mass evacuations in the typhoon`s expected path and cut short her trip to Singapore, where she was attending an Asian summit.
“It`s been raining for many days in some areas, and these are ripe for landslides,” said Glenn Rabonza, administrator of the Office of Civil Defense.
Disaster officials said about 4,000 people already have moved to temporary shelters in four towns in Albay province and one town in nearby Sorsogon province, both of which are in Bicol.
Cedric Daep, executive officer of Albay`s provincial disaster office, said full evacuation of the most threatened communities along the coastline and in the foothills of the Mayon volcano would begin Thursday.
Rabonza warned that storm surges from a powerful typhoon could generate waves 10-30 feet high that could wreak havoc on coastal villages.
Cruz said if the typhoon doesn`t change direction, it will make landfall in Bicol by Saturday morning. But the storm could also veer northwest and hit Quezon province, north of Bicol, the next day.
Officials estimate up to 200,000 people may have to be evacuated from Albay, which last year bore the brunt of Typhoon Durian.