Nonoy Espina and Dennis Jay Santos
Bacolod and Davao, Philippines
A typhoon packing central winds of up to 155 kph (96 mph) slammed into the central Philippines on Thursday, adding another layer of urgency for emergency services already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
Thousands of people in the central region were forced to evacuate from their homes and head to shelters before the Typhoon Vongfong (known locally as Ambo) hit the region, authorities said. The severe weather system dumped torrential rains over large areas after making landfall in Eastern Samar province, forcing authorities to warn of possible flash floods, storm surges and landslides.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government had activated its typhoon plan called Oplan Listo, and all local government units in areas affected by the storm were alerted.
“We have prepared for this typhoon while we are faced with the COVID-19 problem,” he said, adding that “relief goods are enough.”
“We will enforce social distancing on a per family basis at evacuation centers,” Roque said. “The authorities have prepared for this and we are used to contingencies dealing with typhoons.”
Office of Civil Defense (OCD) spokesman Mark Timbal urged officials in areas located in the typhoon’s path to use alternative state-owned facilities as evacuation centers, provided that health protocols be observed.
“It’s a unique situation because it is the first time that we’re going to face a natural hazard like a storm while taking into consideration a pandemic situation,” Timbal told reporters.
Vongfong is the first typhoon to hit the Southeast Asian nation in 2020. It made landfall at 12:15 p.m. in San Policarpo, a town in Eastern Samar, and was churning at 15 kph (9.3 mph), the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) said.
In an advisory on Thursday afternoon, the state weather bureau said the storm’s eyewall was “bringing violent winds and heavy to intense rains” over the impoverished Samar region. That situation was expected to last overnight into Friday, PAGASA said.
“Residents in these areas are advised to take appropriate measures, coordinate with local disaster risk reduction and management offices and continue monitoring for updates,” the agency said. “Flooding and rain-induced landslides may occur in highly to very highly susceptible areas during heavy or prolonged rainfall.”
In Northern Samar province, typhoon incident commander Jay Koonson Acebuche said that a forced evacuation had been imposed and more than 2,000 families were already estimated to be sheltering at evacuation sites.
To ensure that health standards would be implemented in typhoon-hit areas, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the government had begun mobilizing local governments’ disaster response teams.
“Minimum health standards” include physical distancing, frequent handwashing, and checks for body temperature and symptoms of illness. So there needs to be a strategy so families can stay at least one meter apart from one another there in evacuation centers),” Vergeire said.
The Philippines sits on a typhoon belt and endures up to 20 storms a year, some of them devastating and deadly.
In November 2013, more than 6,000 people were killed or missing when Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines.
A year before Haiyan, more than 1,000 people were killed as Typhoon Bopha swept across eastern Mindanao, bringing with it strong winds and gusts that blew down homes made of light materials.
The first typhoon of the year struck the central Philippines as the country has been contending with a widespread public health threat from the coronavirus pandemic. Samar Island sits next to Luzon, the main Philippine island, which has been under a COVID-19 lockdown for weeks and is home to Manila, the capital.
Earlier this week, President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the lockdown would be eased gradually in Metro Manila and in other parts of the country to allow businesses to reopen, but it would stay in place until the end of the month.
On Thursday, Philippine health authorities reported 18 new deaths from the coronavirus and 790 new cases.
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