Manila's fast response to storm saves many lives

Manila's fast response to storm saves many lives
A mother carries her baby while others rest at an evacuation centre for the coastal community, to shelter from typhoon Hagupit, in Manila.

MANILA - It looked like a nation readying for an invasion. Nearly two million Filipinos were quickly evacuated by the authorities to shelters and higher ground as a powerful storm zeroed in on the eastern Philippines.

The country was battered by deadly Super Typhoon Haiyan a year ago, and the response to Typhoon Hagupit was a crucial test for the Philippine government, particularly for President Benigno Aquino. His leadership had received low marks for his poor handling of Haiyan, which killed more than 7,300 people and left millions homeless.

Many were still trying to rebuild their lives when the latest storm struck at the weekend, destroying their homes in a cruel repeat of last year's disaster.

This time around, the mass evacuation saved many lives.

Rescue workers yesterday were still trying to reach coastal villages isolated by floods and downed trees, and the death toll, which stood at 27, could still rise.

The death toll is nowhere near as horrific as Haiyan's, and having overseen what a United Nations official described as one of the world's largest peacetime evacuations, Mr Aquino seems to have learnt much from Haiyan and the immense challenges of the recovery period.

He drew praise from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, which commended his government for its quick and timely preparations to move about 1.7 million people.

Even international aid group Oxfam, which has been critical of Mr Aquino's handling of recovery efforts for Haiyan victims, gave a favourable assessment.

At UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, Mr Aquino has sought to leverage Hagupit's fury to push for stronger climate policies. His representatives to the talks cited the Philippines' huge human and economic losses from natural disasters and pushed hard for a new international deal. The Philippines wants all nations, including developing countries, to cut their use of fossil fuels, which are blamed for heating up the planet and triggering more intense storms like Haiyan and Hagupit.

At home, the authorities were praised for their efforts.

"We're happy that we've learnt our lessons from our past experiences. This is a good sign," said Ms Gwendolyn Pang, secretary- general of the Philippine National Red Cross.

In Tacloban city, epicentre of Haiyan's fury where over 3,000 died, about 50,000 were already in evacuation centres two days before Hagupit made landfall.

By the time Hagupit hit late last Saturday, there were already about 90,000 evacuees.

In Albay province, about 450km south-east of Manila, more than 580,000 people were evacuated, Governor Joey Salceda reported. Tacloban and Albay reported zero casualties.

The question now is whether the level of preparedness that is drawing praise will become the new normal. Has the Philippines turned a corner in better managing disaster risk?

It is too early to say.

"A million people evacuated. That's pretty huge for a country like the Philippines," Ms Kate Marshall, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told The New York Times.

"Even so, we're waiting to see what happens next. We're not out of the woods yet."

Tacloban Deputy Mayor Sambo Yaokasin told The Straits Times that the city did not resort to anything new or novel when it dealt with Hagupit.

He said existing disaster guidelines, for instance, require that residents in vulnerable areas be evacuated 72 hours before a typhoon makes landfall.

He said no one took that seriously before Haiyan.

Now, everyone is taking disaster risk management seriously, he said.

This article was first published on December 10, 2014.
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