One of the most intense typhoons on record whipped the Philippines Friday, killing at least three people and terrifying millions as monster winds tore apart homes.

Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed into coastal communities on the central island of Samar, about 600 kilometres (370 miles) southeast of Manila, before dawn on Friday with maximum sustained winds of about 315 kilometres (195 miles) an hour.

It then swept across the central Philippines, destroying phone and power lines, as well as homes and vital infrastructure, causing a massive communications blackout that left authorities without a clear idea of the extent of the damage.

"It was frightening. The wind was so strong, it was so loud, like a screaming woman. I could see trees being toppled down," said Liwayway Sabuco, a saleswoman from Catbalogan, a major city on Samar.

The government said three people had been confirmed killed and another man was missing after he fell off a gangplank in the central port of Cebu.

But the death toll was expected to rise, with disaster relief officials particularly concerned for isolated communities in Leyte and Samar provinces on the far east of the country.

One of those communities was Guiuan, a fishing town of about 40,000 people that was the first to be hit after Haiyan swept in from the Pacific Ocean. More than 18 hours later, there had been no communication with anyone in the town.

Communication was also cut to Tacloban, the capital of Leyte with more than 200,000 people that appeared to be badly damaged.

Corrugated iron sheets were ripped off roofs and floated with the wind before crashing into buildings, according to video footage taken by a resident that was uploaded on the Internet before communications were cut.

An ABS-CBN television crew also broadcast dramatic footage from Tacloban as Haiyan hit, showing flash floods that had turned the city's streets into rivers. But the network said it had not heard from the crew since.

An average of 20 major storms or typhoons, many of them deadly, batter the Philippines each year.

The developing country is particularly vulnerable because it is often the first major landmass for the storms after they build over the Pacific Ocean.

The Philippines suffered the world's strongest storm of 2012, when Typhoon Bopha left about 2,000 people dead or missing on the southern island of Mindanao.

Haiyan's wind strength made it one of the four most powerful typhoons ever recorded in the world, and the most intense to have made landfall, according to Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology at US-based Weather Underground.

Haiyan generated wind gusts of 379 kilometres an hour on Friday morning, according to the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Authorities expressed confidence that the death toll from Haiyan would not climb dramatically, citing a massive effort starting two days before the typhoon hit to evacuate those in vulnerable areas and make other preparations.

More than 748,000 people had sought shelter in evacuation centres, 3,000 ferries had been locked down at ports and hundreds of flights were cancelled, according to the national disaster management council's spokesmen, Reynaldo Balido.

"In terms of damage, we cannot avoid that... but the silver lining here is that the casualties are only three as of now," Balido said in Manila.

"It is possible that this will increase, but we don't think it will increase that much more unlike in previous typhoons. The people have learnt their lesson."

Another reason for optimism was that Haiyan did not bring extreme rains, which is typically the major cause of deaths for typhoons in the Philippines.

However the International Organization for Migration warned there would be widespread damage and casualties.

"It seems likely that the loss of life and damage to infrastructure will be very significant," said Conrad Navidad, the IOM's Operations Coordinator in the Philippines.

Another vulnerable area was the central island of Bohol, the epicentre of a 7.1-magnitude earthquake last month that killed 222 people and where 350,000 people were living in temporary shelters.

Haiyan weakened slightly as it travelled across the central Philippines on Friday, but still maintained ferocious maximum winds of 268 kilometres an hour, according to the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

It was forecast to exit the Philippines late on Friday night and go into South China Sea, tracking towards Vietnam and Laos.