LGUs must plan early to juggle pandemic response with typhoons – expert

Pia Ranada
LGUs must plan early to juggle pandemic response with typhoons – expert
Typhoon season could complicate the coronavirus crisis – with evacuation centers used as quarantine facilities and calamity funds spent. We need to plan now before it's too late, says an expert.

MANILA, Philippines – Typhoons don’t care if your country is in the throes of a deadly virus pandemic. 

In the Philippines, which is visited by some 20 typhoons a year, preparation is the best solution to what disaster response expert Mahar Lagmay calls the compound emergency of a deadly storm ravaging areas also struggling to contain the novel coronavirus.

With June, often the start of the rainy season, fast approaching, it may already be too late for local governments who have not planned ahead.

“It’s too late. It will really be difficult. All of these actions we need to do against these scenarios should’ve been thought of a long time ago. It should have been included in the planning process,” Lagmay, executive director of the University of the Philippines Resilience Insitute (UPRI), said in an interview with Rappler. (Watch the entire interview here.)

“We have to suffer the consequences because we did not plan ahead,” he added.

Lagmay has extensive experience helping the government deal with natural calamities. He headed the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards or Project NOAH during the administration of Benigno Aquino III. Now, as part of UPRI, he was among the experts consulted by President Rodrigo Duterte about the government’s pandemic response.

Lagmay sounded the alarm especially for highly-urbanized and densely populated cities that may lie in the path of coming cyclones and are also hard-hit by COVID-19.

“It’s because there are so many people that your funds are overwhelmed when the crisis happens or disaster strikes and its difficult to get people in evacuation centers and there are many people exposed to the hazards,” he warned.

Lagmay said Eastern Samar, a region traversed by Typhoon Ambo (Vongfong) earlier in May, would do better in terms of managing evacuation centers because it learned from its Haiyan experience and doesn’t have as many coronavirus cases as other places. (READ: Social distancing ‘per family’ at Ambo evacuation centers)

But cities like those in Metro Manila, the region with the highest number of cases, may not be so lucky.

The pandemic complicates typhoon response in other ways. For instance, 125 evacuation centers have been turned into facilities dedicated for coronavirus patients. What happens when these evacuation centers are needed because of a strong storm?

Strict stay-at-home orders to curb the virus’ spread contradict the need for families to quickly leave their homes before a flood and move into crowded evacuation centers.

Local governments may have also likely used up a lot of their calamity funds for the pandemic, drying up resources for the next disasters, as in the case of Eastern Samar, which was badly hit by the Philippines’ first typhoon of 2020.

What can LGUs do now? But there are still things local governments can do to better prepare for upcoming storms.

Mayors and governors should make an inventory of their available evacuation centers and plan a way to distribute future evacuees across them to ensure physical distancing.

“Before the next typhoon comes, we should know the number of those people in those flood-prone areas and to what extent the inundation wil be. Count them and match it against the evacuation centers, match it against the floor plan of the evacuation center – how many square meters it is, what is the social distancing required. If we’ve done that, we stand a better chance of addressing the problem,” said Lagmay.

To avoid overwhelming the evacuation centers, local governments should quickly identify which parts of their jurisdiction will be flooded so that residents of areas that will be spared will know they won’t need to troop to evacuation centers.

Lagmay also advised local governments to stock up on face masks so they can be distributed during evacuation operations.

Other provinces that experienced the brunt of Ambo used modular tents  so that there is a physical barrier between evacuee families. They also prominently displayed signs reminding evacuees to handwash frequently.

Healthcare facilities also need to prepare for the possible rise in dengue and leptospirosis cases during the wet season. 

“We don’t like hospitals to be overwhelmed during this time of the pandemic because if the hospitals are overwhelmed, you have to prepare your body bags,” said Lagmay.

Doctor and health reform advocate Anthony Leachon had also previously told Rappler that dengue, pneumonia, and flu could “muddle” the diagnosis of coronavirus cases because of similar symptoms. 

The Philippines should learn to be adept at handling complex or compound emergencies. As with the case of the pandemic, calamities can have a domino effect. 

“We have to anticipate. We have to expect the unexpected…. We need to spend time thinking about it now before the typhoons come in,” said Lagmay. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.