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Christmas celebrations hamper Nina evacuation

A powerful typhoon is on its way to slam into the eastern part of the country on Christmas Day as officials struggled to divert people’s attention from family celebrations and travel. A provincial governor offered roasted pigs to entice villagers to move to emergency shelters.

Typhoon Nina (Nock-Ten) packed maximum sustained winds of 185 kilometers (114 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 255 kph (158 mph), and was expected to smash into the island province of Catanduanes Sunday night. It’s then forecast to blow westward across the southern portion of the main Luzon island and pass close to the capital, Manila, on Monday, before exiting into the South China Sea. Nina may weaken after landfall and hitting the Sierra Madre mountain range in Southern Luzon.

Heavy rainfall, destructive winds and battering waves were threatening heavily populated rural and urban regions, where the Philippine weather agency raised typhoon warnings. Officials warned of storm surges in coastal villages, flash floods and landslides and asked villagers to evacuate to safer grounds.

But Christmas is the biggest holiday in the country, Asia’s bastion of Catholicism, giving officials a hard time getting people’s attention away from the holidays to heed the warnings. With many refusing to leave high-risk communities, some officials said they decided to carry out forced evacuations.

In the past 65 years, seven typhoons have struck the country on Christmas Day, according to the government’s weather agency.

Gov. Miguel Villafuerte of Camarines Sur, which is on the typhoon’s forecast path, offered roast pigs, a popular Christmas delicacy locally called “lechon,’’ in evacuation centers to entice villagers to move to emergency shelters.

“I know it’s Christmas … but this is a legit typhoon,’’ Villafuerte tweeted on Christmas Eve. “Please evacuate, we’ll be having lechon at evacuation centers.’’

Camarines Sur officials targeted about 50,000 families – some 250,000 people – for evacuation by Saturday night, but the number of those who responded was far below expectations.

In Catanduanes province, Vice Gov. Shirley Abundo said she has ordered a forced evacuation of villagers, saying some “are really hard-headed, they don’t want to leave their houses because it’s Christmas.’’

“We need to do this by force, we need to evacuate them now,’’ she told ABS-CBN television.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development, which helps oversee government response during disasters, said only about 4,200 people were reported to have moved to six evacuation centers by Sunday morning in the Bicol region that includes Camarines Sur. She expects more people to heed evacuation orders as the weather begins to deteriorate.

“It’s difficult to force celebrations when our lives will be put at risk. Please prioritize safety and take heed of warnings by local government units,’’ welfare official Felino Castro told The Associated Press by telephone.

He said food, water and other emergency supplies had been pre-positioned in areas expected to be lashed by the typhoon. His department was to activate an emergency cluster composed of the military, police, coast guard and other agencies Sunday to oversee disaster-response plans. (AP)