Typhoon days made worse
Typhoon “Ambo” may have blown its way out of the Philippine area of responsibility early this week, but it left behind more than P1.14 billion worth of damage to agricultural lands and crops, 1.46 million households affected, and at least eight million individuals exposed to its destructive winds and torrential rains in Eastern Visayas and Luzon.
The typhoon, dubbed “Yolanda Jr.” after that infamous November 2013 super typhoon, also left four people dead and more than 14 others hurt, and displaced at least 127,000 individuals.
Ambo, the first of some 20 typhoons that may visit the country this year based on the Philippines’ annual record, also left local government units (LGUs) bereft and at a loss on how to cope with the perennial challenges of the monsoon season that, this time, have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. With its previously unheard-of demands and protocols, the pandemic has ushered in additional risks by straining an already creaky health care system, as well as disaster preparedness and management structures.
Foremost among these risks is the inadequacy of evacuation centers. While the use of classrooms as evacuation centers in the past has disrupted classes, the COVID-19 crisis has made matters worse: How do you enforce physical distancing to keep the coronavirus at bay in a situation where hundreds of families have to share limited shelter space?
In Eastern Samar, a disaster officer noted that only half of the residents may be accommodated in existing evacuation sites to follow distancing measures. The other 50 percent would have to relocate temporarily with relatives. With 117 sites used as quarantine facilities for COVID-19 patients, the shortage in typhoon shelters is expected to get worse unless new structures are quickly built for this purpose.
The pandemic has also eaten up the calamity funds and LGU savings that would have gone to relief and rehabilitation efforts, with only P1.73-billion left unreleased of the total P13.9-B in national calamity funds at the start of the year. Except for the P3.3-B set aside for Marawi City, most of the funds have already been spent on COVID-19 measures, shortly after President Duterte declared a state of national health emergency on March 8. The House granted the President emergency powers to disburse the funds for the health crisis on March 24.
Just how prepared is our National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in dealing with a typhoon season made worse by the COVID-19 contagion? Can the agency at least consider some of the proposals offered by, for example, the Oscar M. Lopez Center, a foundation looking into science-based solutions to climate challenges?
The Center reiterates the suggestion that, first of all, LGUs should build facilities dedicated for evacuation purposes. With natural calamities — from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes to typhoons — unleashed on the country year-round, permanent evacuation sites are a good investment for communities in terms of lives and properties saved. This makes even more sense with the World Health Organization warning that the COVID-19 virus may never go away.
Aside from delivering relief goods and providing shelter, social welfare personnel and LGU officials must also be vigilant in ensuring that evacuees observe COVID-19 protocols, such as practicing social distancing, proper hygiene, the use of face masks, and preventive coughing and sneezing etiquette. The health needs of more vulnerable sectors like children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with disabilities should be prioritized.
Frontline health personnel and service personnel need to be provided weather-proof quarters that are accessible to evacuation or quarantine facilities, which should also be secured from the elements and potential flooding.
In terms of technology, the government must look into upgrading the country’s weather forecasting equipment and training, to enable such facilities to provide a reliable early warning system for farmers to harvest their crops, LGUs to find safer storage space for relief goods, and people to move into evacuation sites before disaster strikes. A good place to start is to revitalize Project Noah (for Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards), the previous administration’s flagship research program on disaster prevention and mitigation that was shut down for lack of funds in March 2017. The program provided real-time weather data and hazard maps for communities.
There should be more support as well for research and studies on the relationship between weather, climate change, and virus transmission. The direct or indirect effect of climate disruption on the occurrence and spread of diseases is an area of study that needs urgent exploration, particularly for a country that is now bearing the brunt of that one-two punch.
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