Did we underestimate Tropical Depression “Usman”?
The weather disturbance was first classified as a tropical depression, the lowest among five tropical cyclone categories of the weather bureau, and was later downgraded to a low pressure area (LPA). But, though relatively weak, it brought a huge amount of rain that ended up causing so much destruction and a high death toll not only in Bicol and Eastern Visayas, but also in Calabarzon, Mimaropa and some provinces in Mindanao.
Almost a week since Usman hit the country during the holidays, at least 85 people have died in what was supposed to be a time of joy and cheer. Torrential rains and landslides buried homes, killed people while they slept, damaged infrastructure and produce, and drove as many as 191,000 people to temporary shelters.
Officials of Northern Samar, one of the country’s poorest provinces, aired an appeal over the New Year to national agencies for help as the province reeled from its worst flooding in three decades. “We are appealing to our (national) agencies for immediate assistance. We have not seen this kind of disaster in 30 years. This is the worst ever,” Vice Gov. Gary Lavin said.
In Catarman, officials recorded 300 millimeters of rain over a 10-hour period, its heaviest rainfall in 20 years. In Legazpi, Albay, meanwhile, residents were dismayed that their city was still inundated by floods despite a P2.1 billion flood-control system that is managed by the national government.
The last weather disturbance of 2018 made landfall on Dec. 29, just as Filipinos were busy with holiday merrymaking and preparing to welcome the New Year.
As early as Dec. 24, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) had issued a warning that the weather disturbance could trigger flash floods and landslides. “We keep reminding the public to continue to be on guard as this weather may bring floods and landslides in our areas. We should not let ourselves be caught off guard in these days of festivities,” said Pagasa weather specialist Ariel Rojas days before Usman hit Borongan, Eastern Samar.
Still, despite the timely alerts and preemptive evacuations by local officials, the extent of Usman’s devastation appears to have been unexpected. Its eventual downgrading to LPA might have given people a false sense of security; many mountainside residents were reported to have refused to evacuate after Usman was reclassified as an LPA.
“They (victims) must have relaxed after Usman was declared an LPA… they didn’t know that the rains would be more dangerous than the storm,” said Manuel Damo, chief of the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office in Tiwi, Albay.
“We have disaster protocol when it comes to typhoons [and] storms, but none for [low pressure],” echoed Claudio Yucot, Bicol civil defense director.
The Bicol region sustained the most number of fatalities—69 as of recent count; some of the victims were buried by landslides as they slept in their homes. In a remote area in Sagnay, Camarines Sur, 30 bodies have been retrieved and at least 20 more are believed to be buried. Scores are still missing in that province and in Albay.
The magnitude of the damage to lives and property should prompt officialdom to wake up from the stupor of their holiday break, get back to work and take swift action to alleviate the suffering of the affected residents. It is incumbent upon both national and local officials to put in place a quick but sustained rehabilitation effort to help victims get back on their feet and rebuild affected areas.
The country is not lacking examples of major calamities where rehabilitation dissipated as soon as the calamity has disappeared from the news headlines. Five years on, for instance, many of the thousands of victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” have yet to get decent housing.
Some experts are blaming climate change for Usman’s unusually heavy rainfall. That reality, in a country prone to typhoons, should also prod a more serious and sustained implementation of policies and protocols on disaster mitigation, and a citizenry that is kept abreast about the dangers not only of natural calamities, but also of larger, longer-term changes in the environment. But for now, the government’s most urgent task is to give aid and relief to Usman’s many victims, who are starting the year in misery, anguish and want.
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