It is said to be the strongest typhoon in the world for the year 2010, and Typhoon Megi (local code name: Juan) just hit the northern part of the Philippines. First making landfall along the north-eastern strip of this Southeast Asian archipelago, this area of the country is no stranger to Pacific howlers.
Typhoon Megi almost wiped out a whole coastal town where waves were said to be bigger than the houses, and local officials are considering relocating the whole town itself in the aftermath of the disaster. Other nearby towns sustained 50 to 80 percent damage, not even sparing school buildings that were supposed to be used as evacuation centers.
A large portion of this main area, which is also home to the nation’s capital, is without power and communications facilities. The scene was more like a clip from a dinosaur movie with major power towers crumpling down to the ground. Approximately 100,000 hectares (close to 250,000 acres) of rice and corn lands were destroyed in one of the nation’s largest farming regions. There were floods and landslides left and right, which is not surprising for a mega-howler that was packing winds of more than 175 kph at its center and occasional gusts reaching more than 210 kph.
Sounds like the apocalypse, but there just have been 19 reported deaths as of this writing. Weather-beaten for about a third of the year, the northern region of the Philippines is so used to heavy monsoon rains and typhoons, seeing devastation come and go year in and year out. Lessons from past typhoons have taught residents to always be prepared with well stocked survival gear. Their contingencies have kept local government agencies on their toes throughout the entire typhoon season.
The wrath of Typhoon Ondoy (international code name: Ketsana) which hit the nation’s capital just a little over a year ago and caused the worst flood in more than 50 years was still fresh in everybody’s mind. Consequently, there was much hype over super-typhoon Megi, which was actually good. Those who had access to real-time communication were provided with hourly updates on the storm track, and the surfeit of information about Megi was welcome. A few hours before Megi was to hit land, residents along its direct path had already been evacuated, with a significant number by force. Instead of casualties normally figuring in the hundreds or probably nearing a thousand, the number is remarkably a lot less.
A full report of the extent of damage is not yet available, but everyone knows it is going to be massive. Several villages and towns remain completely isolated and only reachable by helicopters or small boats. But in terms of preparedness, the entire nation has gone a long way from the olden days of panic and chaos. While a few still choose to challenge nature’s elements, most of the population has learned the value of survival gear and disaster preparedness.
A collective focus on disaster preparedness remarkably shows the sense of urgency for civil defense agencies and the rest of the populace to collaborate their efforts prior to, and during every disaster situation. By providing reliable and frequent updates on weather developments, effective civil defense measures can be put in place to prevent loss of lives and property.
But the bigger challenge remains not just in the period following a disaster when relief and rescue operations are in high gear. It all goes beyond that when the flood waters have receded, power has been restored and roadways have been cleared.
Probably a super-typhoon like Megi will not come in another 5 years, and we may let our guards down once again. But the fact is, the nation lies within the western Pacific typhoon belt and is swept by up to 20 tropical cyclones each year.
Even with that, structures continue to be built along open spaces that could have provided breathing areas to a crowded metropolis in the nation’s main hub, while poor settlers build makeshift shelters along riverbanks and waterways that function as natural flood catchments.
Disaster preparedness is not just about being ready with survival gear and emergency measures and contingencies when disaster strikes. It is about working parallel to and not against the inherent characteristics of nature and its occasional wrath.
Karina M. Jugo
October 21, 2010