August 10, 2006

CORRECTED Half million Chinese flee as super typhoon nears

Corrects number in paragraph 1 to half a million, from one million

By Nick Macfie and Guo Shipeng

BEIJING (Reuters) - More than half a million Chinese have fled their homes in the path of a super typhoon, the strongest to threaten the country in 50 years, as it churned relentlessly toward the southeast coast on Thursday.

Saomai, one of three storms to have hit East Asia in the past few days, has already dumped heavy rain on Taiwan and was just hours from an expected landfall between Hong Kong and Shanghai, just south of the booming city of Wenzhou.

Storm tracker Tropical Storm Risk ( graded Saomai a category five "super" typhoon -- its highest category.

Chinese state media said it was the most powerful storm system to threaten the country since August 1956, when a typhoon hit Zhejiang triggering a tsunami that killed more than 3,000.

"Some meteorologists said that the typhoon might grow stronger," the Xinhua news agency said, adding that it could be fueled by remnants of the weakening and west-headed tropical storm Bopha.

"Saomai is packing winds of 216 kph (134 mph) and has outpaced forecasts," Xinhua quoted Li Yuzhu, head of the Zhejiang provincial observatory, as saying.

The center of Saomai was 140 km (87 miles) southeast of Wenzhou at 0500 GMT, moving northwest at 25 km (16 miles) per hour.

Wenzhou residents were reinforcing windows and doors against the storm and stockpiling drinking water and food, state television said.

Wenzhou airport had closed and hundreds of passengers were stranded because of canceled flights, one airport manager said.

"We don't know when we will open again," the manager, surnamed Zhou, told Reuters by telephone. "The wind is only fitful but rain is really heavy here."


Airlines in Taiwan also canceled some domestic and international flights even though the island escaped the brunt of the storm. Hong Kong canceled several flights.

Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, once a prosperous foreign treaty port and now a manufacturing center, has a central population of 1.3 million, but there are 7.4 million in the greater Wenzhou area.

Xinhua reported that Zhejiang had already evacuated 305,000 people and the neighboring province of Fujian 266,000, as heavy rain, strong winds and a high tide hit the area.

Officials in Wenzhou's Cangnan county resorted to television, Internet, text messaging and even two satellite phones to alert residents about Saomai.

They also prepared 30 gongs, a traditional instrument in ancient China to warn people of disasters, the local government said on its Web site (

Much of south China has been repeatedly battered by typhoons and tropical storms this year. Hundreds have been killed by rainstorms, mudslides and floods.

Tropical storm Bilis killed more than 600 last month and typhoon Prapiroon killed about 80 last week.

Tropical storm Bopha fizzled to the south of Taiwan this week and another veered toward the east of Japan.

Typhoons and tropical storms are common in Taiwan, southeast China and the Philippines during a season that lasts from July to October.