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Tens of thousands stranded as typhoon hits Philippines on Christmas Day

Typhoon Phanfone pummelled the central Philippines on Christmas Day, bringing a wet, miserable and terrifying holiday season to millions in the mainly Catholic nation.

Tens of thousands were stranded at shuttered ports or evacuation centres at the height of the festive season on Wednesday, and residents cowered in rain-soaked homes as Phanfone leapt from one small island to another for the second day.

The typhoon crumpled houses like accordions, toppled trees and blacked-out cities in the Philippines’ most storm-prone region.

No deaths have been confirmed, but rescuers said they have yet to reach the more isolated areas, some in neck-deep floods.

Though weaker, Phanfone was tracking a similar path as Super Typhoon Haiyan — the country’s deadliest cyclone on record which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.

More than 16,000 people spent the night in improvised shelters in schools, gyms and government buildings as the typhoon made landfall Tuesday, civil defence officials said.

“It was frightening. The glass windows shattered and we took cover by the stairs,” Ailyn Metran told AFP after she and her four-year-old child spent the night at the local state weather service office where her husband worked.

The typhoon ripped a metal window frame off the building and dropped it onto a car parked outside, she said.

With just two hours’ sleep, the family returned to their home in Tacloban city Wednesday to find their two dogs safe, but the floor was covered in mud and a felled tree rested atop a nearby house.

The weather office said the typhoon strengthened slightly overnight Tuesday and was gusting at 195 kilometres (121 miles) an hour, which can knock down small trees and destroy flimsy houses.

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Survivors took to social media with pictures and videos of crushed homes, buses half-submerged in brown-coloured floods, roads strewn with tree trunks, and coconut and banana plants being shredded by ferocious winds.

The typhoon hit land as millions of Filipinos trooped to once-yearly clan reunions centred on the “noche buena”, a sumptuous midnight meal that is the highlight of the Catholic nation’s holidays.

More than 25,000 people remained stranded at ports on Christmas Day with ferry services still shut down, the coast guard said.

Scores of flights to the region also remained cancelled, though the populous capital Manila, on the northern section has so far been spared.

Phanfone ravaged the north of the island of Cebu overnight Tuesday, and residents decamped from evacuation centres only to find their homes damaged, civil defence official Allen Froilan Cabaron told AFP.

“They were safer at the evacuation centres. At least they were able to eat the Christmas Eve meal there, even if only tinned fish and instant noodles were available,” Cabaron said.

“But even with food on the table, the atmosphere would have been different because they were not at home,” Cabaron added.

“Obviously, they were unable to celebrate Christmas properly because some spent the night at evacuation centres,” rescue official Cecille Bedonia told AFP by phone from Iloilo city.

At the western island resort of Coron, the beaches emptied and boat tours were suspended as Western tourists stayed in their rooms to await the typhoon onslaught later Thursday.

“Many of the tourist establishments here are closed, and some of our guests failed to arrive because their flights were cancelled,” hotel receptionist Nina Edano told AFP by phone.

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“We’re not scared, but the ambience here is generally gloomy,” she added.

The Philippines is the first major landmass facing the Pacific cyclone belt.

As such, the archipelago gets hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons each year, killing scores of people and wiping out harvests, homes and other infrastructure and keeping millions perennially poor.

A July 2019 study by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank said the most frequent storms lop one percent off the Philippine economic output, with the stronger ones cutting output by nearly three percent.

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