Storm churns towards Vietnam

Monday, November 17, 2008

By Ho Binh Minh

A strong tropical storm churned towards southern Vietnam on Monday, threatening a direct hit on the densely populated Mekong Delta and substantial damage to the country’s coffee production.

State-run forecasters said Tropical Storm Noul, with winds of 88 kph (55 mph), would reach landfall around the tourist spots of Nha Trang and Mui Ne late on Monday and cross the coffee-growing province of Lam Dong.

Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee producer and the third-largest producer of crude oil in Southeast Asia.

Noul’s arrival coincides with the peak of the coffee harvest in the Central Highlands. Torrential rains could halt the harvest and prevent farmers from drying beans outdoors, causing delays and lowering quality.

The storm could also wreak havoc in the delta, which normally avoids the worst of the storms that roll in from the South China Sea, making people who live there relatively unprepared for disaster.

“It could cause huge damage to lives and property,” Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung said in an urgent telegraph to provincial authorities and state oil and gas group Petrovietnam.

All offshore oil production remained operational, an official from Petrovietnam said, although state television said Vietsovpetro, a Russian joint venture, would temporarily shut operation on four oil rigs and evacuate workers.

It did not say how much production would be affected.

In his telegraph, Hung ordered the immediate recall of all fishing boats in the area and said children should not go to school as preparations were made for mass evacuations across a 400 km (250 mile) swathe of coastline.

More than 74,000 people needed evacuation while more than 133,000 fishermen had been warned to take shelter as the storm moved to within 100 kms (65 miles) of the coast, the government said.

In neighbouring Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen cancelled a scheduled trip on Tuesday to the coastal province of Kampot, abutting Vietnam, because of the storm.

Vietnamese government reports said more than 17,000 fishing boats were operating near the Spratlys in the path of the storm.

The Mekong Delta, where the latest rice crop has been harvested, is rarely hit by storms. Typhoon Linda caught the region unawares in November 1997, killing at least 464 people. The government never revised an initial tally that listed more than 3,200 people as missing.

(Additional reporting by Nguyen Nhat Lam and Ek Madra in Phnom Penh; Editing by Ed Cropley and David Fox)


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