MANILA — Thousands of people fled to evacuation centers on Friday as Typhoon Vongfong barreled toward the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, dumping torrential rains and raising fears that the coronavirus could spread in packed evacuation centers.
In its morning advisory, PAGASA, the national meteorology service, said that the typhoon, the first to hit the country this season, was “bringing destructive winds and heavy to intense rainfall” to the southern edge of the island.
Luzon, home to about 60 million people, has been on an extended lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But with evacuation centers now packed, officials worry that they will become breeding grounds for the further spread of the virus.
The typhoon, as strong as a category 3 hurricane, made landfall in the Philippines by slamming into the eastern island of Samar Thursday afternoon. By Friday morning, it was wreaking havoc over the island of Masbate and parts of Quezon Province on the southern tip of Luzon, home to the country’s capital, Manila.
The Office of Civil Defense in Manila warned residents living along coastal areas of storm surges of up to six feet along the Philippines islands’ eastern coasts, particularly in the Quezon and Aurora provinces and the Bicol region.
While the typhoon was expected to weaken incrementally, it has so far maintained is strength, churning winds of up to 80 miles an hour.
Images on Twitter showed tin roofs and trees being blown away. The storm also knocked out electricity and communication lines in large parts of the affected regions.
Mark Timbal, a spokesman for the Office of Civil Defense in Manila, said that local officials in areas in the path of the storm were urged to make sure that people taking refuge in evacuation centers were observing social distancing protocols.
“It is a unique situation because it is the first time that we’re going to face a natural hazard like a storm while taking into consideration a pandemic situation,” he said.
More than 2,000 families have fled to evacuation centers in the central province of Northern Samar, according to the regional police.
Fernando Hicap, head of Pamalakaya, a group representing fishermen, said the typhoon has displaced many fishermen and farmers along the coasts of Samar, southern Luzon and the Bicol region further to the east.
He appealed to authorities to provide personal protective equipment to evacuated families because the centers housing them could become hotbeds for the spread of infections.
“Local and national governments must be prepared in providing assistance to the affected families to ensure that the natural calamity will not worsen the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic,” he said.
At least 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year from the Pacific Ocean, some of them deadly. In 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines, carving a wide swathe of destruction across the country and leaving 6,000 dead.