Zero casualty in face of monster typhoon, marauding virus

Vinson Kurian Thiruvananthapuram | Updated on May 29, 2020

A collapsed railway bridge is seen over Chikuma river swollen by Typhoon Hagibis in Ueda, central Japan, October 13, 2019,   -  Kyodo/via REUTERS

A Philippine lesson in ultimate resilience

The pre-monsoon season in India may be fraught with cyclone threats, but it can learn a lesson or two in the way in which a small Philippine province kept its nerves in the face of monster typhoon (cyclone) Vongfeng and the Covid-19 virus that is still at large in the island nation. The Philippines offers itself as a sitting duck to some of the most powerful typhoons in the North-Pacific (farther East to the Bay of Bengal). Despite being thus battered, Albay, a province of 1.5 million people, has not seen a single disaster-related death in 30 years except during a double typhoon disaster in 2006.

Disaster policy tested

Two weeks ago, Albay’s capacity to uphold its ‘zero-casualty’ disaster policy was tested again as the first typhoon of the year in the western Pacific made landfall amid a raging Covid-19 pandemic, recalls Kareff Rafisura, Economic Affairs Officer with the Disaster Risk Reduction Division, UNESCAP, Bangkok. Veteran emergency managers in Albay had tackled almost every imaginable disaster combinations, including a violent mudflow that resulted from heavy rains brought by typhoon Reming that struck the province in 2006 immediately after a major volcanic eruption.

Social distancing protocol

But a typhoon during a pandemic, involving a highly contagious virus at that, was unprecedented, Rafisura wrote to BusinessLine. The odds were horrifying: Rapid evacuation of as many as half a million people has been a mainstay of Albay’s zero-casualty approach. But therein lay the rub: The evacuation centres were being used as Covid-19 quarantine facilities for more than a thousand suspected cases.

Enforcing physical distancing meant that the holding capacity was altogether reduced by 50 per cent, writes Rafisura. The speed by which evacuation could be carried out was also reduced by as much.

Complex emergency scenario

On May 12, two days Vongfong was due to make a landfall, Albay implemented measures based on a complex emergency scenario involving both weather and biological hazards.

Local disaster management councils executed long-standing emergency procedures in conjunction with Covid-19 protocols. “Local churches provided temporary shelters. Citizens living in safe locations sheltered relatives. The selection of these supplemental evacuation shelters was guided by Albay’s land zoning policy that takes disaster risks into consideration,” added Rafisura.

Dodges typhoon’s eye

Thirty-six hours before landfall, local authorities had completed all arrangements for evacuation, including putting in place additional water and sanitation facilities, and isolation rooms for the sick (not of Ccovid-19) in each evacuation centre, as required by the protocols.

On May 14, 191,116 people were evacuated 12 hours before landfall. While Albay dodged the eye of the typhoon this time, Vongfong was a formidable threat - it maintained its destructive potential at landfall with a wind speed of 155 km per hour and gusts of 255 km per hour, and brought torrential rains.

Zero casualty record in tact

Albay succeeded in keeping its zero-casualty record while also preventing the spread of the virus, points out Rafisura. Physical distancing was strictly observed in the evacuation centres. First responders and evacuees all wore face masks. Information from PAGASA, the national meteorological agency, was considered every six hours to adjust strategies on the ground. As a result, no one was kept in the evacuation centres any minute longer than necessary.

Published on May 29, 2020

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