Some 100 small-scale miners are feared dead after a landslide buried their bunkhouse in Itogon, Benguet, during the onslaught of Typhoon “Ompong” in northern Luzon over the weekend.
Scores of others have been confirmed killed in floods and landslides, among them two first responders trying to retrieve people trapped in the mud, also in Itogon. At least 42 landslides have been recorded in the Cordilleras, authorities said.
Ompong (international name: Mangkhut) packed winds of 170 kilometers (105 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 260 kph, and left a trail of devastation comparable to that wrought by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan), which whipped the Philippines in 2013 with winds of up to 315 kph.
Yolanda, which left at least 7,000 dead and billions of pesos in damaged crops and infrastructure in central Philippines, has often been described as the strongest storm on record.
Ompong was as destructive.
And while the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) has yet to release validated casualty figures, it reported a total of 250,036 people in seven regions affected by Ompong.
A total of 133,457 people, or 34,169 families, had to stay in 1,190 evacuation centers, the NDRRMC said.
Cagayan, which initially bore the brunt of Ompong, had to be placed under a state of calamity as it sustained P46 million in damaged infrastructure and P4.6 billion in destroyed crops.
Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol estimated that Ompong would affect a total of 1.2 million hectares of rice and corn fields, reducing the country’s already depleted rice supply and resulting in losses of about P3.6 to P7.9 billion.
Ompong’s howling winds also tore off roofs, uprooted trees, and flooded roads and highways, hampering relief and rescue efforts.
Parts of Metro Manila suffered some damage, as the winds toppled electricity posts, causing power outages, while heavy rainfall triggered flash floods.
Several domestic and international flights had to be canceled as well.
Meanwhile, Central Luzon, otherwise known as the catch basin of the Cordilleras, saw massive flooding, with at least 108 barangays in 18 towns and cities in Pangasinan under water days after Ompong headed for China.
In the midst of already spiraling inflation, the dire prospect of an even more meager food supply because of the devastation in the country’s bread basket has led to calls for the quick release of calamity funds “to replant, rebuild and restore (Cagayan Valley’s) farm output and facilities,” as Sen. Grace Poe put it.
Portions of the P19.6-billion NDRRMC fund in the 2018 national budget, as well as the P7.6-billion disaster Quick Response Fund (QRF), can be allocated to the affected regions, she suggested. As for the repair of schools affected by Ompong, why not get funds from the P2-billion QRF of the education department?
So far, local and national government response had been quick, sensitive and well-planned — thanks to lessons learned from Yolanda and the 20 or so typhoons that visit the country every year.
Notable, for instance, were the calls for preemptive evacuation and the preparation of evacuation sites days before Ompong hit the country, with barangay officials going house to house or doing street by street patrols armed with a loudspeaker to urge residents, especially in high-risk coastal areas, to pack up and leave their homes.
Satellite phones, internet connections, rescue equipment and boats were also readily available for deployment in many provinces.
But Ompong also highlighted areas where immediate rehabilitation needs to be done, if only to mitigate far more disastrous consequences from similar typhoons.
Foremost in need of attention is Baguio, which has been rapidly transformed by urban blight, tourist overload and overpopulation.
The sight of rampaging floods in the once-scenic city was horrific.
The city government would do well to heed the call for a stop to mining activities in the area, which have caused sinkholes and are putting Baguio and other towns and cities in Benguet at risk of landslides and flash floods from the mountains during heavy rainfall.
On a wider scale, the agriculture department should also consider low-interest loans as well as low-cost farm inputs, including seeds to farmers affected by the floods, and loans for fishermen for the repair of their boats and nets, to bring about faster rehabilitation.
Because, after Ompong, another disaster — hunger — looms before them, unless the government acts swiftly and compassionately.
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