One of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall crashed into the central Philippines on Friday, causing widespread damage and some loss of life, but the colossal storm’s speed may have spared the island nation an even worse fate.

Typhoon Haiyan’s heavy winds and huge storm surge killed 56 people, according to unofficial reports monitored by the Philippine Embassy in Washington, said Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. The Filipino government has confirmed six deaths, he said. Other reports put the toll at more than 100. Damage was widespread but impossible to estimate with communication cut off to islands such as Samar, Leyte, Cebu and Panay in the path of the huge storm, but search and rescue efforts had begun, Cuisia said.

“We still have to see what kind of damage has been wrought by this disaster, but so far I am relieved to know [the death toll] is much, much lower than in previous typhoons,” he said.

The “super typhoon,” known as Yolanda in the Philippines, made landfall in Guiuan at 4:40 a.m. local time, blasting the coast of Eastern Samar province with sustained winds of 145 mph and gusts that reached 170 mph, according to a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The typhoon left the Philippines early Saturday and was headed toward Southeast Asia.

Aid groups and local media described “storm surge and flash flooding . . . with significant damage to buildings and homes,” the report said. “Humanitarian partners reported rooftops of even secure buildings were blown away. Waves reached 12 to 15 feet in Samar and Leyte. In some areas, flash floods reached the second floor of buildings.”

Fueled by warm ocean temperatures in the western Pacific, Haiyan nearly attained the maximum wind speeds possible for a typhoon. Satellite images showed a storm 700 miles across with textbook characteristics: an unmistakably clear eye surrounded by towering thunderstorms and impeccable symmetry.

As the storm approached landfall, the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor estimated its maximum sustained winds at 190 to 195 mph, with gusts to 230 mph. If verified, those would be the most powerful on record for any storm that has made landfall.

In the Atlantic, hurricane hunter aircraft directly sample the conditions inside storms. But typhoon strength in the western Pacific is estimated from satellite data, which are less precise.

“We will never know definitively how strong any of them were,” said Brian McNoldy, a tropical weather researcher at the University of Miami.

Haiyan “was among the most intense storms ever recorded on the planet,” he added.

About 18 million people were in the storm’s path, according to the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs office, and 125,000 had been evacuated before the typhoon hit. The area includes Cebu, the Philippines second-largest city. The nation is battered by about 20 typhoons — called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere — and major storms every year. But few, if any, have packed the wind speed of Haiyan.

In 1991, Tropical Storm Thelma unleashed flash flooding on Leyte that killed as many as 8,000 people, many in Ormoc City. Cuisia said the government was much better prepared this time than for previous major storms and people heeded warnings to evacuate.

Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground, a weather information site, wrote that Haiyan’s “fast forward speed of 25 [mph] cut down the amount of rain the storm dumped, compared to typical typhoons that affect the Philippines. Hopefully, this will keep the death toll due to flash flooding relatively low. Flash floods are usually the biggest killer in Philippine typhoons.”

Richard Gordon, chief executive of the Philippine Red Cross, said in a telephone interview from Manila that he had received reports of widespread damage to houses in affected areas, with thousands of tin roofs blown away by heavy sea winds.

“There were a lot of sheets [of tin] flying through the air,” he said. “It was because of the sea surge. Imagine how strong those waves were.”

He said few deaths had been reported. “So far there are no major damage reports. Most of the damage was to roofs, and we hope it will stay that way,” he said.

He said the Red Cross office in Tacloban, a coastal city on the island of Visayas, was “completely inundated” by high water. ABS-CBN, an English-language television station reporting from the city, said storm surge had flooded “large parts of the city” and was sending debris coursing down city streets that had turned into rivers. Water levels in some places had reached 10 feet, the station reported on its Web site.

Gordon said there were unconfirmed reports that six ships had run aground during the typhoon.

On Bohol island, where 350,000 people remain in temporary shelters after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake caused widespread destruction Oct. 15, the displaced were largely spared as the center of the storm passed to the north, said Joseph Curry, country representative for Catholic Relief Services.

Speaking from his hotel in Tagbilaran, Curry said he could see “some fallen branches and debris on the ground, but otherwise it’s quiet and looking fairly normal.

“We were far enough south that the typhoon didn’t affect Bohol too badly,” Curry added. “Overall, we were lucky.”

He said the typhoon’s speed — it raced through from 7 to 10 a.m. — may have helped protect the area. Curry said he plans to travel to the island’s northwestern region, where more earthquake victims are located, and begin to set up shelters Saturday.

Offers of aid began arriving at the Philippine Embassy by mid-day Friday, including one from the U.S. military, Cuisia said. In most cases, the embassy was asking for groups to hold off sending material until the country has the capacity to put it to use.

At Antonio’s Filipino Bakery in Fort Washington, co-owner Gigi Canlas and customer Ting Salvador commiserated over the natural disasters to strike their homeland in recent months, including the earthquake.

“My country has already suffered so much. Oh, Lord,” exclaimed Salvador, a teacher who was picking up pastries for her class. “Some people are already living in tents from the quake. But Filipinos are resilient, and we have a lot of faith. We’ll bounce back.”

Canlas, who has lived in the United States for several decades, said she was still deeply attached to her native country and had been glued to the Filipino cable TV channel since the storm hit.

“It is so devastating. The houses are weak there, and they say the wind is 200 miles an hour,” she said. “I’ve lived more of my life here than there, but your heart is always in your homeland.”