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How the Normally Hard-Hit Philippines Just Averted Major Typhoon Damage

Residents stand among their damaged houses after Typhoon Kammuri hit Legazpi City, Albay, Philippines, December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Nino Luces NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

A typhoon that swept over the Philippines Tuesday killed at least 10 people in a path of destruction that reached the capital Manila. But the country averted a larger-scale disaster, the likes of which often bedevil the impoverished country, due to stronger preparations including mass mobile phone alerts.

The typhoon known internationally as Kammuri and called Tisoy in the Philippines reached the Bicol Peninsula southeast of Manila late Monday with wind speeds of up to 208 kilometers per hour, according to the British forecasting service Tropical Storm Risk.

Philippine officials had warned citizens via mobile phone messaging and traditional broadcast media about the storm’s potential damage, people on the ground say. Local government offices urged evacuations and more than 200,000 complied, media reports from Manila said. Those offices also readied emergency meals for displaced families.

Compared to past typhoons, “I think there is a greater emphasis on disaster risk mitigation,” said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group. “I think it’s across the board and especially at the top.”

Extensive damage -- most likely from flooding -- would hobble rural populations in already poor, inaccessible parts of the mountains and threaten $157 billion worth of new infrastructure nationwide being built through 2022.

Learning from earlier disasters

Typhoons and tropical storms regularly hit the Philippines from June through year’s end, and Filipinos had grown used to mass deaths.

One of the country’s worst, Typhoon Haiyan, killed more than 6,000 in November 2013. The country’s most powerful storm of 2018 left 81 dead in the rugged mountains of Luzon Island north of Manila. In December last year, a weaker storm known as a tropical depression killed at least 85 people and caused extensive damage.

Disaster relief agencies learned from those storms this week by using phones, radio signals and television to urge evacuations, observers say. Aid delivery has grown more “efficient” in flat areas as well, though access is still tough in the less developed mountains, said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Residents are seen after Typhoon Kammuri hit Camalig town, Philippines.
Residents are seen after Typhoon Kammuri hit Camalig town, Philippines.

“In terms of the usual flooding, in urban areas, in flat lands, there seems to be a learning curve already, but there are difficulties in reaching mountainous areas,” Atienza said.

Early preparations

Disaster authorities on the largely coastal Bicol Peninsula and outlying islands started getting ready Monday. They logged 29,493 evacuees and prepared more than 20,000 “family food packs," as of Monday, according to a bulletin from the Disaster and Social Welfare Department Region 5, which covers the storm-hit provinces.

In Metro Manila, the presidential office called off all school classes and non-essential government work at noon Tuesday. The country’s chief international airport had closed for part of the day.

Advances in infrastructure such as roads and airports should now make the country “better positioned to sustain these storms,” de Guzman said.

As a further commitment, the Philippine House of Representatives last year approved a law creating the Department of Disaster Resilience, an agency to be tasked with preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response, recovery, and rehabilitation.

Mobile phone alerts

Filipinos received millions of mobile phone text messages this week from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, warning of “red rain” in some cases. The texts that make loud buzzing noises also told people in the hardest hit regions where to find nearby evacuation centers.

Radio broadcasts reached places with less mobile phone or internet access, Atienza said.

“The damages were, I guess, less than what everybody was expecting,” said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in metro Manila. “Basically, the information that was sent to the phones, the TV stations, were providing very good updates.”

Swathe of damage

Typhoon Tisoy flooded roads, felled power poles and knocked down trees in three provinces, domestic news website reported. The typhoon ripped the roofs off houses too, other news reports said.

Some of those killed were hit by falling objects.

The storm made four landfalls in less than 24 hours, the news website said, causing it to weaken as it approached Metro Manila. It passed into the South China Sea Tuesday night.