Typhoon Bilis slams into Taiwan with immense force

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Typhoon Bilis roared across Taiwan Wednesday, bowling over power lines and trees, shutting down one of the world's busiest ports and forcing thousands from homes into makeshift rescue centers.

A construction worker was killed when a retaining wall collapsed fell on him outside the capital, Taipei. And 10 people were missing after they were believed swept away in a mudslides in southern Hualien and Kaohsiung counties.

Bilis was an especially powerful storm, but there were differing reports of its strength. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, said it had sustained winds as high as 161 mph, making it a Category 5 hurricane capable of causing catastrophic damage. The Taiwan Central Weather Bureau measured the storm at 118 mph. Officials there said the discrepancy in wind speed was partially the result of Taiwan measuring the storm's intensity over a longer period.

By dawn Wednesday, the center of the storm was about 90 miles northwest of Taitung City in southern Taiwan, said Chien Kuo-chi, a forecaster at Taiwan's weather bureau.

Over 80,000 households across the island have lost power since the typhoon made landfall Tuesday night, and technicians braved rains to secure power towers to prevent more damage.

Forecasters initially said the storm would get stronger, but Chien later said it had not increased in strength, a conclusion based on wind measurements. He added that the typhoon may in fact weaken as it moves further to the island's interior.

The government began issuing warnings on Saturday against massive landslides in mountainous regions all over the island and urged residents to remain indoors. Hospitals extended hours at emergency rooms and trauma units.

In the capital, Taipei, power was knocked out and streets remained empty. Roads were strewn with felled trees and street signs as strong winds blew motorcycles and bicycles several meters away.

Shopping malls taped their windows and strapped nets around the buildings to protect the windows from flying debris. But cinemas remained open and television footage showed laughing teen-agers coming out of the movie ''The Perfect Storm.''

Local and international carriers canceled 76 flights to southern Taiwan and abroad. Southern Taiwan's Kaohsiung's harbor - one of the world's busiest ports - remained closed as waves battered the sea walls.

Government offices, banks and Taiwan's stock market were closed on Wednesday.

Taiwan's Defense Ministry and state-run electric company Taiwan Power set up disaster relief centers in southern Taiwan to assist in emergencies. Premier Tang Fei said that Taiwan's army was on alert.

The government has been vigilant in handling natural calamities following the 7.6-magnitude earthquake in September 1999 that left 2,400 people dead.

''It is the duty of all local officials to stay as prepared as possible for the typhoon,'' Vice President Annette Lu told officials at a meeting late Tuesday.

Bilis was the second strong typhoon to hit Taiwan this year. Last month, Typhoon Kai Tak swept through southern Taiwan with winds of up to 93 mph, leaving one dead and five others injured.

On the Web:

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Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau: http://www.cwb.gov.tw

Hong Kong Observatory: http://www.info.gov.hk/hko/ and http://www.weather.gov.hk

Joint Typhoon Warning Center: http://www.npmoc.navy.mil/jtwc.htmil

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