Powerful Typhoon Batters Philippines

A massive typhoon is crossing the Philippines. It is expected to maintain its Category 5 status as it crosses the entire country, and may be one of the strongest storms in history.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Philippines is being battered today by a powerful typhoon, what may be the worst storm ever to hit land. Super Typhoon Haiyan struck around dawn, with wind gusts of over 230 miles per hour. The storm is hitting a region still recovering from a massive earthquake just last month. Earlier, we reached Samuel Ue(ph) in Cebu City, where the worst of the storm had just passed. He was still taking shelter inside without power, but his cellphone worked.

SAMUEL UE: This is the first time a typhoon is shaking my house. My house is made of concrete and steel. People living in the slums will be devastated.

MONTAGNE: There is no word yet on the death toll. For what we do know, we called Bernd Schell in the capital, Manila. He's head of the country's Red Cross. Welcome.

BERND SCHELL: Hello.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you: I gather that Manila is not in the path of this storm. So what are you hearing about other places where the storm has hit?

SCHELL: Yeah. I'm not in the direct part of the storm. We are on the outskirts of the typhoon. However, what we heard from those parts of the country - which is called Western Visayas - though the area where the typhoon made landfall this morning, I think we have to expect really heavy damage.

MONTAGNE: Well, the Philippines is often hit by big storms. There's been a couple of dozen, even, so far this year. But this is a country with very fragile structures. Is it prepared at all for this huge typhoon?

SCHELL: Well, I think Philippines is quite well-prepared. It's probably the best-prepared country I have worked in, in my 30 years with the Red Cross. But of course, it's a huge country. They are 7,000 islands. There are very remote areas. Of course, the preparation measures are not everywhere and, of course, that is also why we still see a high number of damage, a high number of casualties after such storms. But in the last 20 years, the country, the government, humanitarian organizations have invested, are involved in preparedness measure. And of course, when the storms were heading - the typhoons were heading to the Philippines, we already had more than half a million in our evacuation centers before the storm hit. So this shows that there is preparedness. People are moved to safer places. But it's still not enough.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. The half-a-million people already taking shelter, that's pretty impressive, actually. But what else, beyond that, are you able to do in preparation for this one?

SCHELL: Well, of course, what we normally do in Red Cross, there are also people - many people also don't want to be evacuated. They want to stay with their properties. So, of course, what we normally do in our preparedness programs, we try to educate the people how they go to a safe place, how they put their belongings onto a safe place. So at least there is no high number of casualties in the case. Property, of course, it's very difficult to protect because, especially this area of the country, it's very poor. So people are normally - live in wooden structures. And these structures don't withstand these high winds. We see in the typhoon Haiyan, which hit the country this morning.

MONTAGNE: And in the area where that earthquake hit, has that made things a whole lot worse?

SCHELL: Well, of course, we had to do some measures also in the (unintelligible) area, because we have distributed, in the last week, a lot of tents and tarpaulin. But, of course, again, these are not made for high winds. Sowhat we have told the people in the last few days, put them down, save them until the storm is over, and then re-erect them. What we hear now that people have done, though, they have then - took shelter in more massive buildings. Again, the storm is not an earthquake, now. Aftershocks have been down. So people will then now go back to their temporary shelters we have provided. So far, we have heard from (unintelligible), from the earthquake area. I think the storm has not brought massive additional destruction. Many of those buildings that collapsed are concrete buildings, and not so many wooden buildings are there. So in that sense, I think they have been spared of major additional damage due to the typhoon.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

SCHELL: OK. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Bernd Schell is head of the Red Cross in the Philippines, which has been hit by a massive typhoon. We reached him in Manila.

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