Explosive intensification

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

That was fast… and worrisome. Within hours last Sunday, tropical cyclone Karding intensified into a super typhoon as it pounded Luzon.

President Marcos wanted to know: is that the new normal in typhoons?

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration said that yes, the “period of explosive intensification” – a phenomenon in which a tropical cyclone’s peak winds intensify by over 65 kilometers per hour within 24 hours – could become a normal occurrence, complicating preparedness and emergency response. (Karding’s peak winds intensified by 90 kph.)

PAGASA said explosive intensification also occurred when Super Typhoon Rolly slammed the country in 2020; it became the strongest cyclone recorded in the world in that year.

And yes, Marcos was told, climate change is the culprit in extreme weather.

Explosive intensification has now been added to our growing lexicon of disasters that are becoming regular occurrences in the Philippines.

Metro Manila, for example, first became familiar with storm surges on Sept. 27, 2011, when Typhoon Pedring spawned a surge up to 20 feet high emanating (improbably, or so we thought at the time) from Manila Bay, destroying the breakwater and the Roxas Boulevard seawall and causing massive flooding all the way to Taft Avenue.

The ground level of Sofitel Philippine Plaza hotel with its popular Spiral restaurant were destroyed as well as other bayfront structures including part of the US embassy chancery.

Storm surges later also hit what used to be considered as secluded bays. Mindanao, long believed to be out of the path of typhoons, was battered by Typhoon Sendong in December 2011, leaving about 900 dead in Cagayan de Oro City and over 400 in Iligan. In December 2012, Mindanao was again hit by Typhoon Pablo, which killed over 1,000 people. And many people still remember the storm surges of Super Typhoon Yolanda that killed at least 6,352 people and flattened large swaths of Eastern Visayas.

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Residents of the National Capital Region at least breathed a sigh of relief that Karding, which struck on the same day in 2009 that Ondoy shocked the NCR with torrential rainfall and devastating floods, did not unleash the same level of destruction.

Putting this in context, a resident of Marikina who evacuated to safer ground on Sunday, leaving only their father to guard their house, said the flood this time reached only the second floor instead of the third floor.

“We may have been lucky this time,” Marcos said at the briefing on typhoon preparedness and relief efforts.

Weather experts confirmed viral posts that the Sierra Madre Mountain Range broke the strength of Karding as it roared across Luzon. There are proposals to make Sept. 26 Save Sierra Madre Day. It refers to efforts to protect the country’s longest mountain range, particularly from the construction of the Kaliwa Dam.

This, unfortunately for such advocates, will have to be balanced with the need to develop direly needed additional sources of fresh water for Metro Manila.

Timely evacuations helped minimize Karding’s death toll. Tragically, among the casualties were five rescuers in Bulacan, who were swept away by powerful currents after their boat was hit by a wall that collapsed at the height of the typhoon.

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A big headache for BBM is the massive damage to crops in the country’s rice granary, coming just weeks before the harvest. His P20 a kilo “aspiration” for rice may have to wait six years to be attained.

In the aftermath of Karding, there is a renewed push for the creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience.

I don’t know why, when faced with a problem, the go-to response of policy makers is not to implement structural reforms for efficiency, but to further bloat the bureaucracy, by creating a new department or agency that they can pack (at taxpayers’ expense) with beneficiaries of their patronage.

Rightsizing of the bureaucracy is supposed to be a priority of the new administration, especially with the country buried in trillions in debt incurred for the pandemic response.

So what is being done along this line? New agencies are being created. Gerrymandering continues, to make room for more dynasty members and patronage beneficiaries stuffing their faces on the public trough.

If we returned to the original number of seats in the House of Representatives in the first post-EDSA Congress, we’d save enough for COVID response until we reach the real end of the pandemic tunnel.

The savings can also be channeled to climate change mitigation, such as in developing communities where residents of areas at high risk for rising sea levels can be relocated.

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PAGASA’s climate scientist has warned that sea levels are rising three times faster than the global average in the Philippines.

Around Manila Bay, this problem can only be aggravated by ongoing massive reclamation projects, with more in the pipeline. One day there will be nothing left of that bay, and the Manila port will have to relocate. Rodrigo Duterte made noise about opposing such projects, but in the end it turned out to be nothing but hot air.

One official who has truly and successfully opposed such projects is Sen. Cynthia Villar. She even managed to get her pet project, the 175-hectare Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area, declared a protected Ramsar wetland of international importance, effectively putting it beyond the reach of vested commercial and political interests.

The wetland’s lush mangrove forest serves as a significant flood barrier in that area.

But elsewhere around the bay, the coastal island village of Pariahan in Bulakan town, Bulacan is being swallowed up by the sea.

In Navotas and Malabon, the indiscriminate reclamation of the natural catchment lagoon in Dagat-Dagatan – a pet project of the President’s mom Imeldific when she was Metro Manila governor – has caused heavy flooding in that area even during high tide. The western section of the city of Manila, meanwhile, has been sinking gradually for decades.

Flooding is also horrendous around Laguna de Bay, with heavy siltation endangering water supply in Metro Manila. This is due to the indiscriminate reclamation around the lake, combined with the proliferation of fish pens owned mostly by local politicians.

BBM, addressing the United Nations General Assembly last week, called for concerted global action on climate change, eliciting a scoffing remark from Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Marcos might have to work first on concerted action among his political allies to deal with the threats posed by global warming.

With “explosive intensification” of super typhoons now added to the climate threats the country faces, the task becomes more urgent.


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