Philippines moves to calm panic-buying as typhoon bears down

By Rosemarie Francisco MANILA (Reuters) - Panic-buying of food broke out in the central Philippines on Thursday and schools and government offices were shut, as provinces yet to recover from last year's devastating super-typhoon Haiyan braced for another category 5 storm. The government said it was considering declaring a state of national calamity to freeze prices of basic goods and President Benigno Aquino ordered the trade department to send more food supplies to provinces at risk from typhoon Hagupit. "We want to bring in a lot more supplies to cut down on panic buying," Aquino said at a meeting of his disaster command at the main military base in Manila shown on live television. The move followed reports of stores shutting days ahead of the typhoon in order to raise prices of goods later. "Many stores have closed in Tacloban," said Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla, referring to the capital of Leyte province in the central Philippines, where he hails from. "I think everybody is panicking at this point." Typhoon Hagupit was churning across the Pacific around 720 km (450 miles) southeast of the island nation on Thursday, the local weather bureau said, packing winds of up to 205 kph (130 mph) near the center with gusts of up to 240 kph. It was expected to strengthen further before slamming into Eastern Samar province in the central Philippines on Saturday, bringing torrential rain and 3- to 4-metre high storm surges, the weather bureau said. The storm could take the same track as Haiyan, which left more than 7,000 dead or missing and more than 4 million homeless or with damaged houses when it battered the central Philippines in November 2013, the weather bureau added. The Philippine military said troops were on red alert to assist in evacuating danger zones and support relief and rescue efforts. The social work department said it had sent about 300,000 family food packs consisting of rice and canned goods to provinces in the path of the typhoon. While the local weather bureau and the Japan Meteorological Agency predicted Hagupit - Filipino for lash - making a direct hit on the central Philippines, the forecasting website Tropical Storm Risk and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center of the U.S. navy showed the storm veering north, closer to the capital Manila. The Japan Meteorological Agency classified Hagupit as a "violent" storm while the U.S. navy called it a super typhoon. Local government officials and emergency teams from the Red Cross, army and coastguard were on alert for possible swollen rivers, landslides, flash floods and storm surges, said Roger Mercado, governor of Southern Leyte province. "All radios and televisions are open, cell phones are being charged. People are buying food stuff, preparing fuel and gasoline supply," Mercado told local radio DZMM. "People are now conscious of preparations." Eastern Samar and the island of Leyte were worst-hit by 250 kph winds and storm surges brought by Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. About 25,000 people still live in tents, shelters and bunkhouses more than a year after Haiyan. The government said it had moved to Manila the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) informal senior officials meeting set for Dec. 8 to 9 in the central Philippine city of Legazpi, near the likely path of the typhoon. The Southeast Asian country was hardest hit by extreme weather in 2013, said a report by a German government-funded think-tank Germanwatch. (Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Erik dela Cruz; Editing by Alex Richardson)