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Storms test early warning system

A motorcyle rider braves a flooded street
(Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

Heavy rain brought by the annual “southwest monsoon”, combined with a tropical storm to the east of the Philippines, has submerged large parts of the capital, Manila, displacing thousands and testing a recently launched web-based early warning system, officials and residents said.

At least 15 people have been reported killed. "We are rushing rescue operations. Many areas remained under high water and the rain is not letting up," said Vicente Tomazar, head of the civil defence office covering areas south of Manila. "We are deploying rubber boats and army trucks to bring people across to safer areas."

The monsoon dumped 323 millimetres of rain on the capital and surrounding areas in the 24 hours of 5 and 6 August - more than half of the average monthly rainfall of 504 millimetres in August - according to the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, the state weather bureau.

The rain caused the La Mesa dam north of Manila to overflow, turning the city's Pasig River and its streams, which run through heavily populated urban areas, into raging torrents that burst their banks and swept away hundreds of shanties along the banks.

The quickly rising floods caught many residents by surprise, trapping them in flooded roads on the way to work, and many stalled vehicles were abandoned.

Schools, colleges and universities were closed, and President Benigno Aquino suspended work in all government offices in the capital on 7 August. Some hospitals were also flooded.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported more than 808,000 people in Manila and surrounding cities were affected by the flooding, but only 20,000 are in evacuation centres, while the rest are with friends and relatives. People are being encouraged to leave their partly submerged homes, and the authorities say they may order forced evacuations soon.

The sudden floods drew comparisons with those caused by the back-to-back tropical storms Ketsana and Parma in 2009. The floods in August that year swamped over 80 percent of Manila, and are considered the worst in the Philippines' recent history.

Ketsana and Parma left behind some 43 billion dollars in damage, killed more than 1,000 people, displaced another 600,000, and affected up to 10 million.

Civil defence head Benito Ramos told IRIN that the rains had not yet reached the levels seen in 2009, although they could if they persist for another day.

"The rain just kept on coming. The local government units need to act now and get those still in harm's way to safer areas," he said. "I am appealing [to] the public to listen to your officials. The ground is already saturated, so those near slopes should also leave or risk being buried in landslides," he said.

The floods came just weeks after the President announced that the days of uncertainty during disasters would end after he launched Project Noah, a web-based system that provides real-time flood maps and weather alerts, run by the state weather bureau.

The project was in operation for barely two months, but had already been questioned. Most people have mobile phones, but internet access is spotty in parts of the archipelago.

A week before the floods hit on 7 August, the Philippines was pounded by Typhoon Saola, which also brought heavy rain and floods that left 53 dead.

"I was not informed of last week's floods, and also today's floods. I do not know why they are letting us wade into dirty water when all they need to do is, for example, put up a loud siren, because not all of us have Internet," said factory worker Marcos Bonete, 49, as he jumped on a truck that would take him to safety. "I have yet to hear from my wife and two sons. I hope they are safe."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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