By Cecil MORELLA
A giant storm left the Philippines Tuesday after killing at least 27 people and devastating remote coastal towns, but the government won praise for unprecedented preparations that were credited for saving lives.
Hagupit hit the far eastern island of Samar on Saturday with winds of 210 kilometres (130 miles) an hour, making it the most powerful typhoon in the Philippines this year and threatening widespread destruction.
Most of the 27 people reported by the Red Cross to have been killed were on Samar, one of the nation's poorest islands where thousands of homes in fishing communities facing the Pacific Ocean were torn apart.
In San Julian, a tiny farming and fishing town on Samar, mother-of-four Rosario Organo sat with a daughter in front of their ruined bamboo and palm thatch home on Tuesday.
"My only wish is that my family could get a good night's sleep," Organo, 41, told AFP as neighbours sifted through the debris of their destroyed houses to start rebuilding, using salvaged material.
In San Julian and neighbouring coastal towns, Hagupit's winds had snapped coconut trees and power lines, cutting off roads and making the delivery of supplies difficult.
The military flew emergency flights with food, water and other essentials from Cebu to the worst-affected areas on Samar on Tuesday.
Interior Minister Manuel Roxas said 200,000 people were believed to be in need of help on eastern Samar, but this could rise as more comprehensive assessments were carried out in isolated communities.
"It breaks my heart to hear their stories," Roxas said in an interview with local television network ABS CBN.
"All we can do is give them physical support, moral support, give them food and hope we can give back their spirits so they can rise again."
· Relief -
Still, after a barrage of catastrophic storms in recent years that have killed thousands, there was widespread relief that Hagupit had not claimed more lives.
The storm crossed over many farming and fishing communities yet to recover from Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded on land, which killed more than 7,350 people in November last year.
One important factor in fewer lives being lost this time was that Hagupit steadily weakened as it travelled west across the central Philippines.
By the time it brushed Manila, the capital of 12 million people, on Monday night, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm and led to only a fraction of previously forecast torrential rain.
When it exited into the South China Sea on Tuesday morning, Hagupit was officially a tropical depression with sustained winds of just 60 kilometres an hour.
· Prepared -
President Benigno Aquino spearheaded what the United Nations said was one of the biggest peacetime evacuation efforts ever.
Nearly 1.7 million people sheltered in evacuation centres as Hagupit passed their areas, according to government figures, and aid agencies hailed the strategy as a template for coping with future disasters.
"One of the lessons (from Haiyan) was to evacuate before the storm hits, evacuate if you live near the sea, evacuate if you live near trees whose branches might fall on you. That lesson was learnt," Philippine Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon told AFP.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization representative in the Philippines, Jose Luis Fernandez, also released a statement commending the government for its "quick and timely" preparations.
International aid group Oxfam expressed similar sentiments.
"The successful evacuation of residents by communities and the government has saved lives," said Justin Morgan, Oxfam country director for the Philippines.
In Manila, there was widespread relief that the city had been largely spared, after the local weather agency warned of heavy rain and big storm surges.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly the city's poorest residents who live in shanty homes along the coast and riverbanks, spent Monday night in evacuation centres to wait out the storm.
They returned to their homes on Tuesday in drizzly weather after only moderate rain and no major flooding throughout the night.
"I'm relieved and thankful that I still have my house," 63-year-old Corazon Macario told AFP as she prepared to leave a Manila evacuation centre and head back to the riverside shanty she shares with her husband and seven relatives.
"But I pity those who have lost their homes in the Visayas," she said, referring to Samar and other central Philippine islands.