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Surging problems: Assessing typhoon preparations amid a pandemic

The official onset of the rainy season began last June 12, according to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA). Since May, at least 12 recognized typhoons have already entered the country’s area of responsibility, causing varying degrees of damage. 

Already beset by the COVID-19 pandemic, local government units (LGUs) are prompted by the added prospect of devastation resulting from tropical storms to recalibrate and strengthen their disaster preparedness and management strategies while maintaining health standards against the outbreak. Currently, the need for quick response and well-planned contingency measures is underscored as weather-related calamities arise amid a health crisis. 

Preparations in hindsight

As early as May, disaster preparedness among LGUs was already put to the test as Typhoon Ambo battered the country. The storm, which induced about P1.5-billion  in damage, made its first landfall  over Eastern Samar and surged northward through Luzon, parts of which then were still under an Enhanced or Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine. 

Health infrastructure was hammered by heavy wind and rain: the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) recorded 27 health facilities damaged. LGUs in the storm’s path were tasked to shelter some 180,000 evacuees. Health measures had to be enforced in evacuation centers given the threat of COVID-19 transmission. Instead of jam-packed evacuation centers, families were allotted one tent to prevent interacting with other evacuees, while local officials wore personal protective equipment. 

At the end of May, the NDRRMC released a memorandum  on COVID-19 preparedness during the rainy season. It provided a general blueprint for national agencies, LGUs, the private sector, and the general public, encouraging evidence-based decision-making that considers “imminent  ” weather-related disturbances and pandemic data.

Barely coping 

For Metro Manila officials, preparations for Typhoon Ambo had at least been laid out. Disaster response offices across the metro had set out to   clear roads, stockpile supplies, and assess evacuation centers. City officials were also tasked to watch out for flash floods—953 of the region’s 1,710  barangays are flood-prone. 

In Manila, city officials placed 36 personnel and five vehicles on standby prior to the storm’s arrival, along with facilitating evacuation of flood-prone Baseco and Parola compounds in the district of Tondo. Modular tents were also installed in evacuation centers. 

However, “there is usually never enough” resources when it comes to disaster preparation, discloses Alain Thomas Matias, research and planning officer of Manila Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (MDRRMO). Even with aid from government agencies such as the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), the few equipment and personnel are often stretched thin during a large storm.

For now, the city plans to procure equipment for rescue operations. The latest additions to the city’s emergency equipment were new composite resin rescue boats, which Matias describes as “highly resilient”   to debris which otherwise damaged inflatable boats in urban water rescue operations. Acquiring mobile shower trucks, water tankers, and mobile latrines is also a priority, along with increasing stocks of wash kits, lodging supplies, and partition tents. 

Safe zones?

The MDRRMO acknowledges that handling evacuation centers remains “one of the difficult tasks’’ in crisis management. Evacuation centers are expected to follow standards outlined in the DILG’s Disaster Preparedness Manual.

Matias admits that the lack of proper facilities makes it difficult to convince residents to evacuate, especially among informal settlers. “It is rather difficult to evacuate them if they themselves do not find the threat significant enough for them to relocate temporarily,” he divulges.

Despite this, Matias assures that during Typhoon Ambo’s rampage, physical distancing was enforced within the shelters—by cutting down to half their normal capacity—to comply with safety guidelines set by the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force. To minimize the risk of disease spread, health workers were stationed in each center to supervise proper handwashing and sanitation. However, the compliance to evacuation center standards are still an issue—proper toilet and water supply amenities are still lacking.  

At least 973 evacuation centers are scattered throughout Metro Manila, according to a 2019 joint study  conducted by an interdisciplinary team of specialists   from the University of the Philippines Diliman, the University of Santo Tomas, PAGASA, and other agencies. However, most of the region’s cities still sorely lack evacuation centers. Manila only has 22 sites for almost 1.8 million people, meaning 81,000 residents have to squeeze in one place. San Juan City has 37 centers for a population of 122,180, equaling to one evacuation center per 3,300 residents. To complicate matters further, 392 of Metro Manila evacuation centers are themselves located in flood-prone areas.

University-level plans

In response to the effects of nationwide calamities, DLSU has been building capacity to coordinate efforts with government units and agencies. University Student Government (USG) Vice President for External Affairs Ronin Leviste shared to The LaSallian last February that the USG successfully lobbied for the creation of a Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Ad Hoc Committee. 

Although the body is still in the process of being formally established, committee member and EXCEL2020 Batch Representative Nina Bermejo explains that their goal now is not only focused on relief projects during disasters, but also to “[cater] to students’ safety inside the University as well as other stakeholders.” The DRRM Committee is focusing on   consolidating information for pandemic-related standard operating procedures in coordination with the University administration. 

Bermejo discloses, however, that no specific strategies for the rainy season amid a pandemic have been planned out yet. She and the rest of the committee plan to strengthen communication between the University and the students through the University’s Office of Strategic Communications, which oversees information flow across the DRRM’s structure, as well as to schools, sector leaders, and other University committees.  

Currently, the committee is lobbying for a text system that would complement DLSU’s primarily online communication lines, such as University social media accounts and the email-based Help Desk Announcements. 

This “text blast”, Bermejo reasons, can easily reach students even if they do not have access to the internet.

As of press time, Bermejo reports that the committee members are in contact with the administration and are drafting a resolution to be submitted to the USG’s Legislative Assembly. 

Although the end of 2020 is only a few months away, the typhoon threat is far from over. PAGASA  data indicate that although the peak of typhoon season began in July, it   is expected to continue well into October. Devastating storms can enter the country even as late as November, as in the case of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, which left at least 6,300 dead and  4.1 million  people displaced.

By Ian Kevin Castro

By Kim Balasabas

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