SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2020 - 12:00am

The governor of Albay, Al Francis Bichara, mentioned the problem in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Rolly, which pounded the province as well as Catanduanes and Camarines Sur during the Undas weekend.

Residents around Mayon Volcano were advised by local government personnel to evacuate because Rolly had been classified as a Category 5 tropical cyclone – the strongest in the world to be recorded this year. But Bichara said some residents decided to stay put or else returned to their homes as Rolly made landfall.

When Rolly’s winds and torrential rains unleashed volcanic mud from Mayon and picked up boulders along the way, at least 300 houses were buried and six people died in Albay alone.

In Metro Manila as Typhoon Ulysses approached, local government personnel, with some teams wearing personal protective equipment in neon chartreuse so no one could’ve missed them, went around the communities vulnerable to being washed away by floods to tell residents to proceed to evacuation centers.

The scenes at the height of the typhoon and the morning after showed that many ignored the evacuation warning, including communities that suffered from the cataclysmic flooding spawned by Ondoy in September 2009.

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Classified only as a tropical storm in the Philippines, Ondoy brought an unusually heavy amount of rainfall that made flash floods rise so rapidly people were trapped in offices and shopping malls, and could only watch helplessly from upper floors as their cars were washed away.

This time, Ulysses was classified as a typhoon and Metro Manila and neighboring provinces were placed under Signal No. 3. But as I have written, people especially in Metro Manila might have been lulled into complacency by the relatively calm passage of Rolly just over a week previously. If that was Signal No. 4, surely we could sleep soundly through Signal No. 3.

Sadly, we now know that the opposite happened. Ulysses’ fury, which began to be felt by late afternoon, helped persuade people in high-risk informal settlements to go along with forced evacuation. Still, many others who didn’t live in informal settlements, whose houses were made of sturdy materials, decided to sit out the storm in what they thought would be the comfort and safety of their homes.

They ended up waiting to be rescued on their roofs as the rain poured, and then squeezing into crowded evacuation centers where all the tents were already taken. When the sun cleared, they had to trudge through mud up to their thighs to salvage what they could from their houses.

I have never seen such amount of mud in the streets of Metro Manila. Disaster officials said it apparently came from the mountains near Marikina. Garbage, fecal matter and every imaginable pathogen could be in that mud, which began hardening in the sun. The Marikina City government is asking for payloaders to clean up the mud.

Up north in Cagayan, we found out this weekend that the province has been inundated by apocalyptic floods from swollen rivers, compounded in many areas by the release of water from Magat Dam. Residents said they had been trapped on their roofs for three days. The death toll in Region 2 continued to rise yesterday.

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When I was a child our family used to visit friends who lived near the river in Bustos, Bulacan. The children were always warned by the adults that if we heard a blaring siren, we should immediately run to safety because water would be released from the dam and we would be washed away. Locals said many people in the area had died because they ignored the warning siren.

I don’t know if there are still such warning systems in our dams these days. After each major flood, it seems, there would be arguments about the failure to implement proper flood warning protocols. How hard is it for concerned agencies to get their act together?

Over the weekend, officials of various agencies stressed that flood warnings and alerts about the opening of dam floodgates were issued about eight hours before it was done. Local government and environment officials blamed heavy river siltation, illegal mining and illegal logging for the flooding.

President Duterte, who visited Cagayan, ordered the dredging of the Cagayan River – the longest in Luzon. Last year a dredging project at the mouth of the river in Aparri was reportedly put on hold amid accusations that the Chinese company undertaking it was actually engaged in black sand mining.

A flood warning official from the weather bureau said a possible long-term solution to the flooding problem in the Cagayan Valley was the creation of a floodplain, which could be used as a park during the dry season.

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Ricardo Jalad, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, told “The Chiefs” last week on Cignal TV’s One News that the weather bureau has the capability to predict the amount of rainfall and issue the appropriate color-coded warnings, from yellow to red.

So perhaps the messaging for the warning needs tweaking, to properly bring home the urgency of Code Red and the need to evacuate to safer ground for vulnerable communities.

We all know why people refuse to leave their homes even when disaster approaches. One is fear of burglary while the house is empty – the reason cited by some Albay residents for leaving at least one household member to guard the home during Rolly’s onslaught.

The other reason is concern over the state of our evacuation centers. They are almost always overcrowded and afford little or no privacy. They usually have inadequate water and sanitation facilities. And the crowding raises the risk of disease transmission – a major concern especially for families with infants and the elderly.

In the time of COVID, there is greater reluctance to transfer to evacuation centers. Even the tents may not provide sufficient protection if someone in a cramped facility has the coronavirus. Still, the evacuation centers are better than rooftops with a sea of mud underneath.

If authorities want to persuade more people to evacuate, they should present teams that will prevent burglaries when the houses are empty. The quality of evacuation centers, while improved, can still use a lot more upgrading.

Weather experts warn that because of La Niña, we can expect at least three more tropical cyclones before the year is over. Clearly, our disaster responses will have to be better.

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