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Manila (AFP) – One of the most intense typhoons on record whipped the Philippines Friday, killing at least three people and terrifying millions as monster winds tore apart homes.

Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed into coastal communities on the central island of Samar, about 600 kilometres (370 miles) southeast of Manila, before dawn on Friday with maximum sustained winds of about 315 kilometres (195 miles) an hour.

“It was frightening. The wind was so strong, it was so loud, like a screaming woman. I could see trees being toppled down,” said Liwayway Sabuco, a saleswoman from Catbalogan, a major city on Samar.

The government said three people had been confirmed killed and another man was missing after he fell off a gangplank in the central port of Cebu.

But the death toll was expected to rise, with authorities unable to immediately contact the worst affected areas and Haiyan only expected to leave the Philippines in the evening.

An average of 20 major storms or typhoons, many of them deadly, batter the Philippines each year.

The developing country is particularly vulnerable because it is often the first major landmass for the storms after they build over the Pacific Ocean.

The Philippines suffered the world’s strongest storm of 2012, when Typhoon Bopha left about 2,000 people dead or missing on the southern island of Mindanao.

But Haiyan’s wind strength made it one of the four most powerful typhoons ever recorded in the world, and the most intense to have made landfall, according to Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology at U.S.-based Weather Underground.

Haiyan generated wind gusts of 379 kilometres an hour on Friday morning, according to the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Masters said the previous record for the strongest typhoon to make landfall was Hurricane Camille, which hit Mississippi in the United States with sustained winds of 190 miles an hour in 1969.

In Tacloban, a city of more than 200,000 people close to where Haiyan made landfall, corrugated iron sheets were ripped off roofs and floated with the wind before crashing into buildings, according to video footage taken by a resident.

Flash floods also turned Tacloban’s streets into rivers, while a photo from an ABS-CBN television reporter showed six bamboo houses washed away along a beach more than 200 kilometres to the south.

Authorities expressed initial confidence that the death toll from Haiyan would not climb dramatically, citing a massive effort starting two days before the typhoon hit to evacuate those in vulnerable areas and make other preparations.

More than 718,000 people had sought shelter in evacuation centres, 3,000 ferries had been locked down at ports and hundreds of flights were cancelled, according to the national disaster management council’s spokesmen, Reynaldo Balido.

“In terms of damage, we cannot avoid that… but the silver lining here is that the casualties are only three as of now,” he said in Manila.

“It is possible that this will increase, but we don’t think it will increase that much more unlike in previous typhoons. The people have learnt their lesson.”

Another reason for optimism was that Haiyan did not bring extreme rains, which is typically the major cause of deaths for typhoons in the Philippines.

Nevertheless, Balido said disaster officials had yet to make contact with many cities and towns that were believed to have been badly damaged, and it was impossible to get a clear picture of the damage on Friday evening.

One of the isolated areas was Guiuan, a fishing town of about 40,000 people that was the first to be hit after Haiyan swept in from the Pacific Ocean.

The International Organization for Migration also warned that widespread damage and casualties was likely.

“This is a massive, devastating weather event,” said Conrad Navidad, the IOM’s Operations Coordinator in the Philippines.

“It seems likely that the loss of life and damage to infrastructure will be very significant.”

It said one particularly vulnerable area in Haiyan’s path was the central island of Bohol, the epicentre of a 7.1-magnitude earthquake last month that killed 222 people and where 350,000 people were living in temporary shelters.

Haiyan weakened slightly as it travelled across the central Philippines but still maintained ferocious maximum winds of 268 kilometres an hour, according to the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

It was forecast to exit the Philippines after 9:00pm (1300 GMT) and into South China Sea, tracking towards Vietnam and Laos.

AFP Photo/Charism Sayat

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