On the afternoon of Christmas Day, as most families and households across the country were enjoying the holiday feasting, the news on TV was grave: Some 11,000 passengers were stranded in ports and terminals, forced to spend Christmas Eve far from their homes and loved ones, due to the approaching Typhoon “Nina.”
With maximum winds of 185 kilometers per hour and gustiness of up to 255 kph, Nina was one big howler; Catanduanes and Camarines Sur were placed under typhoon Signal No. 4, while Signal No. 3 was hoisted over Burias Island, Albay, Camarines Norte, Southern Quezon, Sorsogon and Marinduque. That meant the wholesale evacuation of tens of thousands of people living in high-risk areas such as coastal communities and towns prone to flooding and landslides. By Sunday night, the number of evacuees in the Bicol region had reportedly risen to close to 300,000.
Typhoons at this time of the year are hardly unusual, but there is still a particularly painful wallop to a storm hitting close to, or right on, Christmas Day. The country’s biggest holiday is the time when an epic exodus happens as Filipinos of all stripes throng local and international ports to be with their families on this special day. A typhoon disrupting that much-anticipated reunion—or, worse, sowing widespread tragedy as in the case of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” which struck one month before Christmas in 2013—is the kind of unforeseen circumstance of which one could only pray to be spared.
Thankfully, at this writing, casualties appear to be few despite Nina’s ferocity. The damage to property and public utilities could prove to be high because of the strong winds, but the timely intervention by the responsible government agencies appears to have mitigated the effects of the storm. The flip side of that story on the 11,000 passengers stranded in ports, after all, was the reported blanket refusal by port officials to approve of any ferry leaving the port, preferring to err on the side of caution just to avoid the risk of accidents.
The early evacuations in Bicol were also the result of officials taking proactive steps to ensure the safety of residents—whether they liked it or not. Apparently, a number of villagers were reluctant, even stubborn, about moving temporarily to emergency shelters, because it was Christmas Eve. That impasse led to the rather inventive effort by Camarines Sur Gov. Miguel Villafuerte to entice people to move—by offering to serve lechon at the evacuation centers.
Some just had to be moved by force—as in Catanduanes, where Vice Gov. Shirley Abundo was quoted as saying she had ordered a forced evacuation of “hard-headed” residents. It was the right move; Nina, expected to make landfall in Catanduanes only by 8 p.m. of Sunday, appeared to have picked up speed and slammed into the island much earlier, at 6:30 p.m.
If Nina’s aftermath proves to be like that of “Lawin” in October—heavy damage to infrastructure and considerable long-term aid required for the calamity victims, but minimal to zero casualty rate—then the prospects appear to be good that the country is learning from past experiences and getting better at disaster management.
The challenge for the government is to further institutionalize these lessons—and, as part of it, to fund the necessary disaster preparedness programs adequately. The group Social Watch Philippines has taken note that the recent national budget signed by the President allocates only P15.7 billion as calamity fund, a P23-billion decrease from the previous allocation—at a time when the country is projected to suffer worse weather disturbances due to climate change.
It appears to be doing capably so far, but with about 20 ever-deadlier storms lashing the country each year, Mr. Duterte’s administration cannot ever let down its guard in this regard.
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