Super Typhoon + Manila = Disaster

Last November, Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, slammed into the Visayas region of the Philippines, taking more than 6,300 lives and resulting in US$2.86 billion in property damage. What would happen if such a storm were to pound Metro Manila, the home of 16 million people?

Haiyan/Yolanda is believed to have been the strongest typhoon ever to strike land anywhere in the world, with gusts above 335 km per hour. The Philippines is a country where massive natural disasters including typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are a depressing way of life. On average, up to 20 tropical storms enter Filipino waters, with about half of them making landfall.

The pace and severity appears to be picking up as a result of global warming, a major concern for a country as vulnerable as the island archipelago, which comprises 7,000 islands, about half of them inhabited, and stretches for thousands of kilometers north and south across the South China Sea, providing a vast target for storms.

So far, the capital, Metro Manila, a huge urban mass of 16 cities populated by 16 million people – 35 percent of them poor – has been spared a typhoon of that magnitude. They have hit elsewhere in the Philippines. In 2012, a super typhoon Bopha/Pablo, hit the southern island of Mindanao for the first time that close to the equator, killing 1,146 and leaving 834 missing. It did US$1.04 billion in damage.

“Over the past decade, the world has been hit by some of the largest and most ferocious storms in human memory,” according to the Manila-based country risk firm Pacific Strategies & Assessments. It quoted a United Nations report that Pacific storms are longer in duration and wind speeds are 25 percent higher. PSA has produced a 30-page assessment of what would happen if one such storm, rated at winds above 241 km per hour (150 mph) were to hit the city. The results, the report says, “would be catastrophic.”

There is little indication that the country is in any way prepared for such a disaster although according to the report, under President Benigno S. Aquino III, the Philippines has made significant socio-economic strides in recent years and the government has begun to “establish a vision for addressing some of the country’s longest-standing challenges and build a foundation for better governance.”

Disaster preparedness and management has justifiably received major government attention, with spending increased by nearly P100 billion, about 5 percent of the total national budget. Much of that budget, however is earmarked for cleaning up Haiyan/Yolanda, nine months after the storm smashed into Samar, Leyte and Cebu. The government, the report notes, “has spent wisely on more proactive and innovative disaster mitigation programs” such as hazard mapping, etc.

Even with rising disaster preparedness, PSA notes, at least 4,000 people would be killed and 13,000 would be injured. Total estimated damages would probably exceed US$3 billion. Nearly all commercial and residential structures would experience some degree of damage. In a city where vast warrens of flimsy structures are the norm, that does not seem unreasonable.

So far, government officials have shown a disheartening inability to cope with disasters in Manila, whatever the Aquino administration is up to. In 2012, torrential rains hovered over Metro Manila for eight days, flooding the city, leaving 63 people dead and nearly 8,4500 homes destroyed completely. Despite the fact that the storm hit the center of government, it was weeks before the damage could be undone. It was not the first time, nor the last that government has broken down in attempting disaster relief. Far too often, relief has evolved into photo opportunities for movie starlets to deliver lunch boxes from the back of army trucks.

According to the PSA report, the city is lucky because of its geographical positioning. It has never experienced 240 kph winds. Fortunately, according to meteorologists, while a Category 3 storm is quite possible, the rugged terrain surrounding Metro Manila including Batangas, Laguna, Rizal and Quezon provinces effectively serves as a windbreak. Two previous typhoons with wind speeds of more than 200 kph fell to a top speed of 140 km by the time they reached the city

Nonetheless, Manila is ranked by the US as the third most vulnerable metropolitan area on earth with the second-most number of people at risk.

Power generation systems and distribution lines would be downed, leaving millions of homes without electricity for long periods. All telecommunications systems would experience extensive outages. Transportation infrastructure damage would cause major disruptions. The vulnerability of a large portion of the population, particularly the urban poor, would result in a humanitarian crisis.

There are serious concerns about what that would do to the national economy. Metro Manila, the seat of the national government, accounts for 40 percent of the country’s gross national product. Most of the metropolitan area is just slightly above sea level

It is the poor who would take the brunt. The Metro Manila Development Area estimates more than 500,000 families live in slum areas in Metro Manila – many of them having fled the destruction in Tacloban, the city hardest hit by Haiyan/Yolanda.

“Without proper residential facilities, informal settlers use streams, creeks and rivers as garbage dumps that clog up Metro Manila’s already meager drainage,” the PSA report notes. “A study by the Asian Development Bank shows that Metro Manila inhabitants dispose of about 6,050 tonnes of garbage daily, but only 71 percent is collected and taken to landfills.”