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Year's strongest storm lashes Far East

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Saturday, September 21, 2013, 10:38 AM -

The most powerful typhoon of the year swept through the Luzon Strait separating the Philippines and Taiwan on Saturday, battering island communities with heavy rains and strong winds as it headed straight for Hong Kong.

Typhoon Usagi weakened from a super typhoon - with sustained winds of at least 241 km/h - and veered westward during the day, likely sparing southern Taiwan from the most destructive winds near its eye. No deaths or serious injuries were immediately reported.

By Saturday evening, the storm had maximum sustained winds of 173 km/h and gusts of up to 209 km/h, and was 150 km southwest of Taiwan's southernmost point, the Central Weather Bureau said.

But gusts exceeding 230 km/h were recorded on the Taiwanese island of Lanyu, with dangerous winds buffeting the holiday resort of Kending on the Hengchun peninsula as the storm made its closest approach to the area.

The Hong Kong Observatory said Saturday night that Usagi was 570 km east-southeast of the city. It said the storm's maximum sustained winds would weaken to 165 km/h as it approaches Hong Kong on Sunday afternoon before making landfall overnight. The observatory was maintaining a No. 1 Standby Signal and warned that the storm posed a "severe threat'' to the city.

Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragonair said flights Saturday were unaffected except for one cancelled flight, but both airlines said flights to and from Hong Kong International Airport would be cancelled from 6 p.m. Sunday and resume Monday if conditions permit.

China's National Meteorological Center announced a red alert, its highest level, as the storm maintained its track toward the manufacturing heartland of the Pearl River Delta. The observatory warned Usagi would impact coastal areas of Guangdong, Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.

In Taiwan, more than 3,000 people were evacuated from flood-prone areas and mountainous regions as the government deployed military personnel into potential disaster zones. The storm system dumped up to 520 mm of rain along the eastern and southern coasts in a 20-hour period, with officials warning that more than 1,000 mm could drop before the storm leaves Sunday.

Local officials closed mountain highways blocked by landslides and suspended train services connecting the east and west coasts as power outages and rising floodwaters affected thousands of homes.

Rivers swollen with fast-moving water and debris thrown down from steep and unstable mountain catchment areas threatened bridges on both sides of the island.

In the Philippines, Usagi triggered landslides and power outages in the north of the country, including the Batanes island group, where it made landfall early Saturday. No casualties have been reported.

The Office of Civil Defence in Manila said landslides damaged houses and roads, and pockets of power outages were reported in at least five northern provinces, where several roads and bridges were impassable.

The government's weather bureau warned that storm surges and heavy waves could cause damage in the Batanes and other islands in the Luzon Strait before Usagi blows past the Philippines on Saturday night.

Usagi has a massive diameter of 1,100 km, with its outer rain bands extending across Luzon, all of Taiwan and more than 100 km into China's interior, satellite images show.

The Associated Press.

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