Hundreds of thousands of people across a wide stretch of the Philippines sought refuge Friday in churches, schools and other makeshift evacuation centers as the island nation braced for another a powerful typhoon.
About 50 provinces covering more than half the archipelago could be at risk from Typhoon Hagupit, including many communities that were devastated by last year's deadly Typhoon Haiyan, officials said.
Hagupit was expected to make landfall late Saturday, probably on the eastern island of Samar.
Forecasters differed on the route that it could take from there, with the state weather agency predicting it would cut across the country's central islands, and the U.S. military's Joint Typhoon Warning Center suggesting a more northerly route that could include the southern outskirts of the capital, Manila.
Although the storm appeared to be weakening as it approached the coast, officials warned it could still bring dangerous winds, rain and storm surges. On Friday, local meteorologists clocked gusts of 143 mph.
Tens of thousands of families still live in tents and other flimsy shelters along coastlines that were battered in last year's storm.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development said at least half a million people had fled their homes, and there were plans to move many more ahead of the approaching typhoon, which is known in the Philippines as Ruby.
However, the U.S. advocacy group Refugees International said it was concerned that many evacuation centers might not be safe.
"A damage assessment of designated evacuation centers in typhoon-affected areas indicated that in some places – such as Eastern Samar, where Hagupit is headed – less than 10% ... were likely to withstand future typhoons," the group said in a statement.
"Moreover, while the hope is that large-scale evacuations will help save lives, there's little doubt that Hagupit will bring a great deal of fear and suffering to thousands of Filipinos who already lost everything to Haiyan."
Fred Padernos, a father of five in Tacloban, the city hit hardest by Haiyan, said his family was sheltering in a four-story building, where they had rented space with others.
Last year, Haiyan's tsunami-like storm surges trapped the family on the second floor of their home.
"Luckily I was able to save my family," he said. "But I was hurt emotionally and very depressed, because I really saw the danger before my eyes, that any moment we could die."
By Friday evening, the weather was ominous.
"We are feeling the strong wind already. It comes very quickly and goes away again and comes back," he said. "Sometimes it creates very small whirlwinds. And then the clouds are getting thick already and dark, and rains are pouring down and stop and then pour down again. It's very abnormal."
Government officials and international aid organizations said they had learned lessons from Haiyan, which destroyed about 1 million homes, displaced 4 million people and left more than 7,300 dead or missing.
"Nobody is taking any chances this time — not the government, the population or the international agencies," said Bradley Mellicker of the International Organization for Migration. "Everyone remembers what happened last year and are preparing to the greatest extent they can."
In Tacloban, Mayor Alfred S. Romualdez said he had suspended school and was encouraging workers from other areas to return home to reduce the city's population to a more manageable level. Numbers swell from about 240,000 up to 1 million people during the workday, he said.
Romualdez estimated that 95% of the people living in vulnerable coastal communities had relocated to evacuation centers.
"They know because of experience that they don't want to get caught flat-footed and don't want to rely on outside help, so the best way is to prepare," Romualdez said. "They are very attentive and monitoring the bulletins."
Unlike last year, rescue and debris clearance vehicles were moved to protect them from storm surges, and police and military reinforcements were deployed in advance, he said.
To ward off looting, police officers were positioned at strategic check points and were patrolling the city's central business district, where many banks are located. A temporary liquor-sales ban was in effect.
The city has set up backup communications systems and emergency coordination centers, Romualdez said. But with only propeller planes allowed to land at the Tacloban airport because of damage to the runway, there is still reason for concern if the city takes another direct hit.
Mellicker of IOM said local authorities were preparing differently in Guian, another Haiyan-battered town.
Although many buildings destroyed last year have yet to be rebuilt, people living in makeshift accommodations had been evacuating to "solid structures" for 48 hours, with the pace picking up on Friday, he said.
"The whole peninsula is built of limestone, so many have evacuated into caves, which people have used for generations and always survived in," Mellicker said.
Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, said the organization is in "much better shape than last time." More relief supplies and personnel have been positioned, and more equipment has been purchased — including trucks, water tankers and satellite phones — which should improve response times.
But he cautioned, "Even if you are ready, nature has a way of getting back at you and biting you in your behind, so you have to be ready for surprises."
Special correspondent De Leon reported from Manila and Times staff writer Zavis from Los Angeles.