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Super typhoon Haiyan slams Philippines; 'significant loss of life' predicted

One of the strongest storms ever recorded slammed into the Philippines early Friday, packing powerful winds that a weather expert said were poised to cause extensive devastation.

"There will be catastrophic damage," Jeff Masters, a former hurricane meteorologist who is meteorology director at the private firm Weather Underground, told The Associated Press. 

Typhoon Haiyan's maximum sustained winds were 195 mph, according to the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii.

Thousands of villagers fled as the most powerful storm on the planet this year approached the Philippines on Thursday.

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Haiyan was rated as a category-five storm early Thursday, according to Weather Channel lead meteorologist Michael Palmer.

He warned that the storm was likely to cause widespread devastation and "a significant loss of life."

“It’s a very poor country and there is not really any place for these people to go because they are on an island," Palmer added. “There was a similar typhoon that struck in 1990 which killed 700 people so you are going to see that here, maybe even worse.”

He added: “It is a perfectly symmetrical storm with the eye completely clear so it is as strong as you can get."

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center said it was the strongest tropical cyclone in the world this year.

Areas in the path of the storm were already experiencing strong winds and heavy rains early Thursday and officials grounded ferry services, called in fishing boats and shut schools.

"I have issued a call to prepare for the worst," said Ben Evardone, a member of Congress representing Eastern Samar province, one of the areas likely to be hit. 

Haiyan is forecast to pass just north of the Philippine's second largest city Cebu, home to around 2.5 million people.

Authorities have grounded ferry services and fishing operations, nearly 200 local flights have been suspended, and commuter bus services stopped as the storm dumped torrential rain and ripped galvanized iron roofs off buildings and houses. 

Evacuations were ordered in some areas and the state weather bureau raised storm alerts on the eastern provinces of Samar and Leyte. Officials in a dozen other central provinces also began stockpiling food, water and other relief supplies.

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Edgardo Chatto, the governor of Bohol Island province in the central Philippines, where an earthquake last month killed more than 200 people, said that soldiers, police and rescue units were helping displaced residents, including thousands still in small tents, move to shelters.

The typhoon was not forecast to directly hit Bohol but the province was still expected to be battered by strong wind and rain, government forecaster Jori Loiz said. 

Haiyan is expected to lose strength after leaving the Philippines and go on to hit Vietnam with wind speeds of up to 125 mph on Saturday and Sunday, Palmer said.

An average of 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year. In 2011, typhoon Washi killed 1,200 people, displaced 300,000 and destroyed more than 10,000 homes.

Bopha, the strongest storm to hit last year, flattened three coastal towns on the southern island of Mindanao, killing 1,100 people and destroying crops, property and infrastructure worth $1 billion

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Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.