MANILA, Philippines - One of the strongest storms on record slammed into the central Philippines on Friday, killing at least four people, forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes and knocking out power and communications in several provinces. But the nation appeared to avoid a major disaster because the rapidly moving typhoon blew away before wreaking more damage, officials said.
Typhoon Haiyan raced across a string of islands from east to west - Samar, Leyte, Cebu and Panay - and lashed beach communities. Nearly 750,000 people were forced to flee their homes.
Weather officials said Haiyan had sustained winds of 147 mph with gusts of 170 mph when it made landfall. By those measurements, Haiyan would be comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane in the U.S., knocking on the door of the top category, a 5.
Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are the same thing. They are just called by different names in different parts of the world.
Because of cut-off communications in the Philippines, it was impossible to know the full extent of casualties and damage. At least two people were electrocuted in storm-related accidents, one person was killed by a fallen tree and another was struck by lightning, official reports said.
Southern Leyte Gov. Roger Mercado said the typhoon triggered landslides that blocked roads, uprooted trees and ripped roofs off houses around his residence.
The dense clouds and heavy rains made the day seem almost as dark as night, he said.
"When you're faced with such a scenario, you can only pray, and pray and pray," Mercado told The Associated Press by telephone, adding that mayors in the province had not called in to report any major damage.
"I hope that means they were spared and not the other way around," he said. "My worst fear is there will be massive loss of lives and property."
Eduardo del Rosario, head of the disaster response agency, said a powerful typhoon that also hit the central Philippines in 1990 killed 508 people and left 246 missing, but this time authorities had ordered pre-emptive evacuation and other measures to minimize casualties.
He said the speed at which the typhoon sliced through the central islands - 25 mph - helped prevent its 375-mile band of rain clouds from dumping enough of their load to overflow waterways. Flooding from heavy rains is often the main cause of deaths from typhoons.
"It has helped that the typhoon blew very fast in terms of preventing lots of casualties," regional military commander Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda said. He said the massive evacuation of villagers before the storm also saved many lives.
The Philippines, which is hit by about 20 typhoons and storms a year, has in recent years become more serious about preparations to reduce deaths. Public service announcements are frequent, as are warnings by the president and high-ranking officials that are regularly carried on radio and TV and social networking sites.
Provincial governors and mayors have taken a hands-on approach during crises, supervising evacuations, inspecting shelters and efforts to stockpile food and relief supplies.
President Benigno Aquino III assured the public of war-like preparations, with three C-130 air force cargo planes and 32 military helicopters and planes on standby, along with 20 navy ships.
Among the evacuees were thousands of residents of Bohol who had been camped in tents and other makeshift shelters since a magnitude-7.2 earthquake hit the island province last month.
Relief workers said they were struggling to find ways to deliver food and other supplies, with roads blocked by landslides and fallen trees.
The storm "unleashed fierce winds and harsh rains that uprooted big trees and toppled electric poles and power lines," said Aaron Aspi, a spokesman for World Vision in Bohol.
From Samar, the typhoon battered Leyte, then the northern part of Cebu and nearby islands before lashing Panay - islands with some of the best beach resorts in the Philippines.
As of 8 p.m., the typhoon was north of Palawan province, 200 miles southwest of Manila, and had weakened a bit with sustained winds of 134 mph.
Forecasters said the storm was expected to move out of the country and into the South China Sea on Saturday morning, where it was likely to pick up renewed strength on its way toward Vietnam.
Dozens of flights in the central and southern Philippines were canceled. A storm surge estimated at 15 feet damaged a seaside airport in Leyte's Tacloban city. Airport workers moved to the tower and were safe but no other details had been reported because communications were cut by the typhoon, aviation official John Andrews said.
"They've been incommunicado. The last message we got from them was that the airport was ruined," Andrews said.
Andrews said the typhoon also damaged the airport in Kalibo town in Aklan.
World weather experts are calling Hiayan one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record at the time it hit land, but not quite the windiest. There are disputes over just how strong it is because of differences in the way storms are measured.
"In terms of the world I don't think it's the strongest," said Taoyang Peng, a tropical cyclone scientist at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. But he added that "it is one of the strongest typhoons to make landfall" and probably the strongest to hit the Philippines.
The U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center put Haiyan's sustained winds at 196 mph just minutes before it made landfall Thursday, which would be a world record. However, officials in Tokyo and the Philippines but the wind speed at about 147 mph.
Peng said his group considers Tokyo the authority in this case because it's the closest regional center to the storm.
The best way to measure a storm is with radar from a plane flying in and out of it. That's not done in Asia, where they use satellite imagery and ground measurements instead.