The Lessons from Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby

Super Typhoon Hagupit has been tamed by the Philippines’ topography and was downgraded to a tropical storm on the afternoon of Dec. 8 before it could drive northeast far enough to drown Metropolitan Manila, bulging with more than 25.5 million people, vast numbers of them in substandard, flood-prone housing.

While in general the government did a good job by Philippine standards, the risk of more devastating typhoons, and more of them, appears to be growing, and hitting a wider geographical area of the country. They are likely to tax the resources of a strapped government.

Although Hagupit, known in the Philippines as Ruby, came ashore as a super typhoon with winds gusting up to 225 kph at its core at almost the same place as Haiyan/Yolanda 13 months ago, it didn’t pack the same destructive punch – although it lingered over parts of Leyte and Samar for 16 hours, dropping a phenomenal amount of rain. Catbalogan, on the eastern island of Samar, reported 446.6 mm (17.58 inches) from 8 am Dec. 5 through 11 pm Dec., 8.

Haiyan/Yolanda took the lives of 6,500 people and left another 1,000-odd missing. It destroyed or damaged 6.1 million homes in a swathe all across the midsection of the island country. By contrast, only 26 lives apparently have been lost in the Philippines so far according to the International Red Cross, demonstrating that this time around, the Philippine government headed by President Benigno S. Aquino III had got its act together. The national government set up food and aid distribution centers prior to the arrival of the storm and both the government and aid agencies were in place to react.

More than a million people were evacuated to more protected areas. The temporary housing built in in Tacloban in the wake of Haiyan/Yolanda stood up to the test. In a country where government is often a disappointment, this time around it appears to have done its job under very difficult circumstances.

Unlike Indonesia, an island country that devolved government down to the local level at around the turn of the century, the government in Manila runs the show, with weak local governments. What government there was in Samar and Leyte was totally destroyed by Haiyan/Yolanda. Rebuilding Tacloban and other communities in the path of the storm has been a painful process despite the millions of dollars of aid and governmental assistance poured in by other countries, particularly Australia, the US, Japan and others..

If the tropical depression had moved just a few degrees to the north, it could well have been a different story. As it was, Hagupit/Ruby just brushed the outskirts of Manila.

But global warming contains the seeds of ominous change. Storms are hitting later in the year, they are more powerful than at any time in recent history, and they are more unpredictable. There has never been a storm as powerful as Haiyan/Yolanda. Since 2004, six typhoons have taken nearly 15,000 lives in the Philippines. Haiyan/Yolanda Nov. 2013: 7,300-plus Bopha/Pablo Dec. 2012: 1,901 Washi/Sendong Dec. 2011: 1,268 Fengshen/Frank Jun. 2008: 1,410 Durian/Reming Nov./Dec. 2006: 1,399 Winnie Nov. 2004: 1,593 killed Source: the Weather Channel Hagupit/Ruby hit the Philippines on Dec. 6. Not long ago, typhoons, particularly super typhoons, were unheard of this late in the year. They were also unheard of hitting as far south as Mindanao, where Bopha extended all the way down to General Santos City at the tip of the island.

Although climate scientists are cautious, it appears inevitable that things are going to get worse. As many as 20 tropical storms enter Philippine waters each year now, with about half of them making landfall. According to a September subscription-only study of the Philippines by the country risk firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments, “in a recent global study of cities under threat from natural disasters, Metro Manila ranks second in terms of the number of people at risk, and is the third most vulnerable metropolitan area on earth.”

The city has never suffered winds exceeding 241 kph – the lower limit for a super typhoon -- partly because is shielded somewhat by the topography. But as PSA points out, if one did hit, “the associated hazards would be catastrophic.”

PSA projects that at least 4,000 people would be killed, 13,000 injured, with total estimated damages exceeding US$3 billion, leaving millions of homes and businesses without electricity.

All telecommunication providers in Metro Manila would experience extensive outages and failures, although that is hardly news. Many lesser storms have done taken out communications for substantial periods.

The numbers of medical care facilities and professionals are woefully low, with hospitals, ambulances, skilled care emergency technicians and all other facets of medical care are inadequate. The metropolitan area has only 125 fire trucks and needs more than twice as many. There are 135 existing fire stations; 303 are needed. The city has 2,496 firemen but needs 3,500. There are fewer than 250 hospitals, to serve 25.5 million people. The number of medical personnel, hospital facilities and ambulances are insufficient to treat thousands of victims at the same time.

There are encouraging signs, however. After decades in which many of the Philippines’ leaders and lawmakers regarded governance first as a chance to enrich themselves, the Aquino administration seems to be making some halting progress in turning things around. Aquino himself seems to have taken charge of the preparations for Hagupit, taking to television to say that the primary mission was to save lives. Given the relative efficiency of the warning and evacuation in the danger areas on Samar and Leyte, particularly around Tacloban, and with Red Cross and other relief agencies on the scene, this time around everything largely seems to have worked.

The government has made a start on rebuilding – or building, in fact – badly needed infrastructure. It is fair to gauge the Aquino government by what happens in the next few weeks. It has vowed to get power back on by New Year, three weeks from now, although in a better-prepared country power should be back on in a few days.

While in general the government can be considered to have done a good job by Philippine standards, the risk of more devastating typhoons, and more of them, appears to be growing, and hitting a wider geographical area of the country, and they appear more likely to tax the resources of a strapped government.