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Typhoon tests Philippine readiness

Typhoon Mina as it appeared on November 23. NOAA

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Service Administration (PAGASA) is tracking a typhoon, Mina (also know as Mitag), headed for the country’s northern island.

Whichever way the typhoon ultimately goes, according to disaster preparedness authorities, it poses a major threat to life and property in six to eight provinces with an estimated population of 10-12 million.

Pre-emptive evacuations

Provincial governors in coordination with local officials activated local disaster coordinating councils to conduct “pre-emptive evacuation” of residents in threatened areas, particularly in coastal and low-lying towns and landslide-prone areas. Gina Lindayag, a resident of the coastal town Virac in Catanduanes Province told a local radio programme that fishermen have already moved their fishing vessels to the town plaza in anticipation of the storm. “We are taking no chances,” she said.

Typhoon Mina is the 13th storm to pass through the Philippines in 2007 and has been reported as packing maximum, sustained winds of 175 kilometres per hour with gusts of 210 kilometres per hour according to PAGASA official Nathaniel Cruz. It is now expected to make landfall late Sunday (25 November) or early Monday.

Only three weeks ago, typhoon Kabayan killed six people and destroyed P19 million (US $442,000) worth of property as it slammed northern Luzon. Isabela Province sustained the most damage. Another typhoon, Lando, on 19 November, battered the Visayas and Mindanao islands killing 10 people and causing an estimated P65 million (US $1.51 million) in damage.

250,000 evacuated

Typhoon Mina has triggered major evacuations with Philippine disaster preparedness officials saying that in all 250,000 people have now fled their homes or been evacuated to temporary facilities in southern Luzon provinces. In Albay Province, Governor Joey Salceda ordered a mandatory evacuation of residents from the slopes of Mt Mayon volcano due to possible `lahar' - mud flows.

National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) deputy administrator, Anthony Golez, said Mina could likely affect other Luzon regions and urged provincial and local official to undertake "precautionary measures”. The typhoon is expected to also hit the provinces of Ifugao, Mountain Province, Benguet and Ilocos Sur.

Mina’s threat has brought back memories of the catastrophe brought by super typhoon Reming in November 2006 and a string of others that year. Reming killed 1,200 people, left 200,000 homeless and triggered massive mudslides as it slammed into Bicol.

As Mina slowly moved toward northern Luzon, President Gloria-Macapagal Arroyo presided Saturday afternoon, 24 November, over a briefing of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) - composed of social welfare, interior and local government, public works and the health departments, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, PAGASA, the Philippine National Red Cross and other agencies including the police and the National Food Authority to assess disaster preparations. Earlier on the 24th, she ordered the “pre-emptive evacuation of residents in threatened areas”.

A culture of preparedness

NDCC deputy administrator, Anthony Golez, said the immediate response of provincial and local officials to disaster warnings due to typhoon Mina is a welcome development. “We are seeing a shift from a culture of response to a culture of preparedness.”

In Auroro Province, the governor, Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, said she had ordered the immediate evacuation of residents in coastal areas and barred fishermen from venturing to the sea. “We have no rubber boats for rescue operations and many of our villages are located along the coast,” she said. She asked President Arroyo for the military to provide rubber boats in case of rescue operations.

In Isabela Province, Governor Grace Padaca asked the NDCC for assistance, before and during the typhoon, pointing out that the province has yet to recover from the onslaught of the last typhoon. “We don’t want a repeat”, she said, of what happened during typhoon Kabayan in early November in which nine people died.

On high-alert status

At the NDCC briefing, the National Red Cross assured a steady supply of blood. It also assured provincial governors its local chapters are on 24-hour alert. Health Secretary Francisco Duque has ordered all hospitals in north Luzon to be on “white” alert - a high-alert status - and able to do their part if needed in emergency and disaster operations.

Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral said local social welfare offices are now coordinating with local governments and have quick response teams activated in north Luzon evacuation centres.

National disaster response adviser for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Ronaldo Reario told IRIN that government, from the national, provincial to the local levels, had become “more aggressive” in responding to potential disaster situations. He said: “There is a significant improvement... government is able to respond immediately, compared to past experiences,” adding, “there is now serious anticipation of hazards to the vulnerable groups.”

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