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Unprecedented typhoon preparedness almost certainly saved lives

Filipino residents of Bicol Region prepared for Typhoon Mina which threatened to come ashore as a “super typhoon” with winds of more than 220 kph. The government ordered the evacuation of an unprecedented number of people - some 250,000 in all. Luis Liwanag/IRIN

With the devastation of last year’s Typhoon Reming (international code name: Durian) still fresh in their minds, the people of Bicol Region, central Philippines, quickly headed for evacuation centres last week when word came that another potential super typhoon was headed their way.

“Since Reming, life has never been the same. Whenever it rains here, I cannot sleep. Rain brings anxiety to me and, I guess, to all the people here,” Dr Joy Marbella, a resident of Daraga, Albay Province, in Bicol told IRIN. “I still remember the days when rain would lull me to sleep but now, no more.”

Marbella said Reming had killed hundreds - about a third of their `barangay’ (town) - and since then, residents remain wary when the heavy rain arrives. “When Typhoon Mina was predicted to pass by our province, we quickly packed our things.”

In November 2006, Typhoon Reming triggered mudslides that left over 1,000 people dead and 200,000 homeless, and caused millions of pesos worth of damage to property. With Typhoon Mina (international code name: Mitag) threatening to wreak the same havoc, people were not taking chances.

Melvin Bausus and his family had learned their lesson. “All our crops were destroyed and our roof was blown away,” he said. “We had to sleep under the table.” This time, with Typhoon Mina approaching, Bausas and his family, who tend a farm in Camarines Sur in Bicol Region, along with several of their neighbours, trimmed back their crops to keep them from being uprooted, reinforced windows and roofs, and trooped, with livestock in tow, to the town hall, a make-shift evacuation centre.

Unprecedented preparations

Memories of Reming and the combined threat of Typhoon Mina and Tropical Depression Lando (international codename: Hagibis) triggered a new level of disaster preparedness on both the national and local level not witnessed previously in the typhoon-battered Philippines.

''Since Reming, life has never been the same. Whenever it rains here, I cannot sleep. Rain brings anxiety to me and, I guess, to all the people here.''
Armed with forecasts from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Service Administration (PAGASA) indicating that tropical storm Mina “could become a ‘super typhoon’ with winds of more than 220 kilometres per hour”, the national government issued directives for the evacuation of an unprecdented number of people - some 250,000 in all - three days before the typhoon was expected to make landfall.

“We can’t afford another Reming,” said Joey Salceda, governor of Albay Province, which was forecasted to be a direct hit. “Our goal was zero casualties.”

To manage the daunting task over three days, classes were immediately suspended and they systematically evacuated people based on risk level. To encourage them to stay in the evacuation centres, about 200 volunteers packed over 90,000 food kits. Governor Salceda said Albay spent a total of P19.5 million (US$460,000) on evacuation efforts.

“We’ve done pre-emptive evacuations before, like when the Mayon volcano was predicted to erupt, or for low-lying and flood-prone areas when a storm is coming,” Pecos Intia, head of the city disaster coordinating council in Legazpi, the capital of Albay, told IRIN. “But never before in this scale… it’s the first time we’ve simultaneously evacuated people from all high-risk areas.”

Photo: Luis Liwanag/IRIN
A reminder of the devastation: Filipino residents attempt to recover in November 2006 from Super Typhoon Reming which triggered mudslides that left over 1,000 people dead and 200,000 homeless
Counterinsurgency operations suspended

In a sign of the nation truly coming together to thwart disaster, the Philippine military even suspended counterinsurgency operations against the New People’s Army as the typhoon approached to focus on disaster operations, and the communist rebels responded in kind by declaring an indefinite ceasefire in typhoon-ravaged areas.

Before Typhoon Mina made landfall, it changed course, sparing Bicol a direct hit, and headed towards more northern Philippine provinces which quickly instigated evacuation procedures as well.

“We were sufficiently warned beforehand,” Cris Samonte, the executive assistant to the mayor of Tuguegarao City in Cagayan Province told IRIN. “Our mayor is regularly apprised of the situation by other local government units,” he said. “We alerted the city disaster coordinating council, readied our pump boats, and advised people in areas at risk to prepare and reinforce their homes.”

Lessons learned

Samonte added that they have learned their lessons too, and have taken to preparing for the typhoon season during the summer months. “During the dry season, we unclog waterways to fix water levels and prevent flooding,” he said. “The people have also learned. They now know what to do when a storm is coming.”

The same is true in Bicol. “Before, they ignored our warnings,” said Pecos Intia, head of the disaster coordinating council in Legazpi. “Now, even without the national directives from the government, the people were volunteering to evacuate.”

“We were psychologically more prepared this time, so it was easier to move people. People respond to fear and incentives,” Governor Salceda said.

Photo: Luis Liwanag/IRIN
Filipinos learned much about preparing for natural disasters after Super Typhoon Reming struck in November 2006
Ronaldo Reario, national disaster response adviser at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN the massive evacuations seen last week were an indication the government was very much in control of the situation. “It was a collective effort. The partnerships between different agencies and organisations were crucial because local government units could not have done it alone,” said Reario.

In Albay, for instance, Governor Salceda explained that they coordinated with PAGASA and the National Disaster Coordinating Council for information, with local government units for logistics, and sought support from the military and police for mobilisation. “I even asked a senior forecaster from PAGASA to come here and advise me,” he told IRIN.

Intia said private businesses and individuals opened their doors to evacuees and lent much needed vehicles. By Saturday 24 November, the day Mina was expected to hit Bicol, over 33,000 families or 163,000 individuals were already housed in 576 evacuation centres throughout Albay.

At the latest count, Typhoon Mina left 29 people dead, 5 injured, and 10 missing - numbers significantly lower than those left by Typhoon Reming. In Albay and Tuguegarao, there were zero casualties.

Despite the typhoons eventually veering off and weakening, Governor Salceda said that the preparations were worth it. “Was it worth P19.5 million to save a single life? Yes, it was,” the governor told IRIN, adding that they were now documenting their experience in readiness for the next typhoon.


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