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Evacuations Begin as Hagupit, Now a Super Typhoon, Heads for Philippines

Image: Typhoon Hagupit in the western Pacific Ocean is captured by NASA's Aqua satellite

Typhoon Hagupit in the western Pacific Ocean is captured by NASA's Aqua satellite December 3, 2014 , in this handout image provided by NASA. Residents of coastal villages and landslide-prone communities were told to move to government-designated evacuation areas, as typhoon Hagupit (Filipino for lash) barrelled towards Eastern Samar province in central Philippines with winds of up to 140 kph and gusts of up to 170 kph. NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response via Reuters

Evacuations were under way Thursday in a major Philippines city devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan last year as a new storm that threatens to be the strongest of the year was headed its way.

"This is going to be a very, very powerful typhoon," Jon Erdman, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel, said of Super Typhoon Hagupit, which was pushing sustained winds of 150 mph — with gusts to 185 mph — as it headed west-northwest toward Tacloban City, a central Philippine city of 218,000 people about 350 miles southeast of Manila.

Hagupit — known locally as Ruby — could take two different paths, one straight for the Philippines and the other just north of the island nation, forecasters said. The Philippines' national weather bureau pegged its chance of direct landfall at 75 percent.

Philippines Brace for a Major Storm 0:31

Hagupit was passing north of the Republic of Palau about 800 miles east of the Philippines early Thursday (Wednesday evening ET), spinning off 42-foot waves, the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Weather Center said.

It strengthened significantly to a Category 4 storm in just a handful of hours overnight and was expected to reach Category 5 — the strongest on the scale — later Thursday. While it was expected to fall short of the strength of Haiyan, which killed more than 7,000 people in November 2013, it was still forecast to strengthen into the most powerful storm of the year anywhere in the world.

Should it stay on its current path, it's expected to reach the Philippines sometime early Saturday, possibly causing major coastal flooding and battering waves, destructive winds and life-threatening flash flooding and mudslides, forecasters said.

In Tacloban, where about 3,500 families are still living in tents and temporary shelters more than a year after Haiyan swept through, all schools were closed through for the rest of the week and voluntary evacuations were already under way, the city government said. A ministerial meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum was relocated to Manila, the Philippine Star reported.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council issued a "red alert" bulletin Thursday morning, warning of rainfall as heavy as three-quarters of an inch per hour.

"We are hoping for a big, big turn, but right now Tacloban is very much in the path," Erdman said.