Heavy rain and strong winds began to hit the eastern Philippines Saturday ahead of a giant storm threatening more devastation to areas yet to recover from a super typhoon that killed thousands.
Typhoon Hagupit was moving slowly in the Pacific Ocean towards the disaster-plagued Southeast Asian nation and is expected to make landfall before dawn on Sunday, forecasters said.
More than 600 000 people in coastal areas were in evacuation centres according to the government, and many others were expected to pour in throughout Saturday amid warnings of house-destroying winds, giant storm surges and landslides.
Hagupit was forecast to hit remote fishing communities on the far eastern island of Samar first, then cut across mostly poor farming central regions, and possibly the densely populated capital of Manila.
Many communities in the central Philippines are still battling to recover from Super Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm ever recorded on land, which left more than 7350 people dead or missing in November last year.
In Tacloban, one of the cities worst-hit by Haiyan's monster winds and tsunami-like storm surges, thousands of people on Saturday crammed into schools, churches and other evacuation centres.
"We are afraid. People are panicking," Alma Gaut, 36, whose house was destroyed and mother died during Haiyan, told AFP as she huddled in the second floor of a university with more than 1000 other people.
"All we have is a tattered, plastic sheet to sleep on. My grandmother is already feeling the cold."
Outside, the town appeared almost deserted as rain began to fall and trees bent with the wind in what residents feared was an ominous prelude to another bout of ferocious weather.
In Catbalogan, the capital of neighbouring Samar island forecast to be the first place hit by the storm, authorities were preparing for water surges more than one storey high.
More than 10 000 people had been ordered into safe buildings, according to mayor Stephany Uy-Tan.
"We don't want people to panic but I ordered forced evacuations so they would be safe," the mayor told AFP by phone.
"There are always some people who say the wind is not yet that strong, that there is still no rain... we just have to explain that there is a huge possibility of a storm surge."
In the eastern region of Bicol alone, authorities said they were aiming for 2.5 million people - half the local population - to be in evacuation centres by Saturday night.
Hagupit was on Saturday morning about 180 kilometres east of Samar island, according to local weather agency Pagasa.
Its rains and winds could impact 50 million people, or half the nation's population, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman told AFP.
The typhoon was generating sustained winds of 185 kilometres an hour and gusts of 220 kilometres an hour which, if maintained at landfall, would make it the strongest to hit the Philippines this year.
The previous strongest storm this year was Rammasun, which killed more than 100 people when it cut across Manila and other parts of the main island of Luzon in July.
The Philippines endures about 20 major storms a year which, along with regular earthquakes and volcano eruptions, make it one of the world's most disaster-plagued countries.
The storms regularly claim many lives but they are becoming more violent and unpredictable because of climate change, according to the United Nations and many scientists.
And in the previous two years, there were consecutive December storms that together claimed more than 3000 lives.