Thousands evacuated as Typhoon Soulik nears Taiwan


People sit on a makeshift raft made with a bag of plastic bottles on a flooded street in Jintang county, Chengdu, Sichuan province. Photo - REUTERS/Stringer

Thousands of people were evacuated in Taiwan and the entire island declared an "alert zone" as Typhoon Soulik edged nearer Friday, expected to pound the country with powerful winds and heavy rain over the weekend.

More than 8,000 people have been moved from their homes, many from southern areas prone to landslides, according to the Central Emergency Operation Centre.

"The whole country is now considered an alert zone," an official from the National Fire Agency told AFP.

Around 5,000 of those who have been evacuated were from the landslide zones in the south -- 3,000 were moved out of Kaohsiung city and 2,000 others from Pingtung county.

They have been taken to local government buildings which have been turned into shelters.

Offices and schools closed in Taipei and eight other cities, with residents advised to stay indoors as the typhoon churns towards the island.

Packing winds of up to 209 kilometres an hour (130 miles), Soulik is expected to make landfall on the north-east coast around 3am Saturday (1900 GMT Friday), the Central Weather Bureau said.

The bureau downgraded Soulik from a super typhoon to a moderate typhoon but warned residents across the island to prepare for "extreme torrential rain" -- classified as 350mm (14 inches) within 24 hours -- and rough seas.

In the north, more than 600 residents were evacuated from six low-lying aboriginal riverside villages on Friday morning.

"I saw TV reporting that the typhoon may bring in up to one metre of rainfall. That would be terrible and reminded me of the painful memories last year," Ginghong Izan, a male migrant from the Amei aboriginal tribe told AFP, speaking outside his home in Hsichou village.

"My TV, computer, refrigerator and furniture were all flooded when (Typhoon) Saola hit in August. It cost me around Tw$200,000 ($6,670)," the 52-year-old said, adding that he started moving valuables to higher parts of his house two days ago.

Saola left six dead, two missing and 16 wounded in Taiwan after taking 23 lives in the Philippines.

Other villagers were busy packing up their personal belongings and were reinforcing the roofs of their wooden homes.

In Wuchieh, a township in the northeastern Yilan county -- which is forecast to bear the brunt of Soulik -- over 2,000 sandbags were snatched up by residents and two amphibious military vehicles deployed for rescue.

Waves as high as 1.5 metres hit the shore in Yilan on Friday afternoon as coastguards patrolled the beach to warn visitors to stay away while hundreds of fishing boats sought shelter.

"Many farmers have harvested rice, fruits and vegetables early as the typhoon is expected to impact our area," said Huang Hai-tao, an official in Jiaosi, a popular tourist destination in Yilan.

"The typhoon has also caused some damage to tourism as more than 90 percent bookings for this weekend have been cancelled."

President Ma Ying-jeou urged government units and the public "not to let their guards down" in a statement Friday, after inspecting the central government's disaster response centre.

A coastal highway in Yilan where 20 Chinese tourists were killed by landslides caused by Typhoon Megi in 2010 was also closed.

More than 2,000 tourists had already been evacuated from the remote Green Island, southeast of Taiwan, on Thursday.

The storm has disrupted air travel to and from Taiwan with 65 flights cancelled according to the transport authorities.

In Taipei's Songshan district, one neighbourhood politician toured the streets in a car warning people over a loudspeaker to leave work and go home by 2pm local time (0700 GMT).

Local television in the capital reported traffic gridlock and a run on supermarkets as people rushed to stock up.

Measuring 280 kilometres across, Soulik was 270 kilometres east-southeast of Yilan at 1000 GMT, according to the weather bureau.

In August 2009 Typhoon Morakot killed about 600 people in Taiwan, most of them buried in huge landslides in the south, in one of the worst natural disasters to hit the island in recent years.

Soulik is moving along the same route as 1996 super-typhoon Herb, which left 51 dead and 22 missing in Taiwan.

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