Typhoon Ompong: Lessons Finally Learned?

Typhoons are a consistent occurrence that devastates countries like the Philippines every year, yet government responses to disasters have been historically poor. With the year’s most severe storm over, the question must be asked whether the aftermath of Typhoon Ompong will result in more of the same.

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Typhoon Mangkhut (Ompong) at peak intensity over the Philippine Sea https://tinyurl.com/ybylmfxl

Weeks after its strongest storm of the year, the Philippines has begun its road to recovery following Typhoon Mangkhut, known locally as Typhoon Ompong. The storm made landfall in the Philippines on September 15th and ravaged the country with winds of over 200 km/h and a diameter of roughly 900km. According to government statistics, the storm affected 3,029,866 persons in 5,928 neighbourhoods in the northern island of Luzon. Officially, the disaster has thus far resulted in 82 deaths, along with 138 injuries and 2 missing persons; some sources put the death toll at over 100. According to Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, the majority of the deaths were caused by landslides, predominantly in the Cordillera Administrative Region of northern Luzon. A major portion of these figures stems from a fatal landslide in the mining town of Itogon, where at least 59 people were killed. This region, in particular, was especially at risk for major damage from the catastrophe due to monsoon rains in the month prior and a terrain that intensified its effects, causing major flooding and landslides. Ompong caused just under ₱34 billion in damages to infrastructure and agriculture, with the country’s agricultural north feeling the brunt of the destruction.

Efforts to rescue citizens from a landslide resulting from the typhoon

Following the exit of Ompong from the Philippines on September 17, six provinces declared a state of calamity due to the disaster. Ompong caused havoc throughout northern Philippines, downing power lines, ripping off roofs, and damaging infrastructure critical in reaching affected areas. Though the storm caused major damage and disrupted life in the country, namely the cancellation of flights and classes, the majority of heavily affected areas have begun their recovery. By September 26th, all classes and flights had resumed.

Despite the damage, however, President Duterte publicly stated he was ‘satisfied’ with the government’s preparedness prior to the storm and their subsequent response. With the storm causing major flooding and landslides, coupled with northern Luzon’s rugged terrain, responders to the disasters are faced with significant challenges in reaching affected areas. Disaster relief has relied heavily on airlifts to deliver supplies to those who need it. In Cagayan, the province where Typhoon Ompong made landfall, the Philippine Military has sent 2 C-130 planes and 10 helicopters to aid typhoon relief, while airlifts of supplies have reached survivors in the province of Benguet who were left stranded due to a bridge collapse. As of the most recent statistics, the government is currently serving 14,752 persons inside and outside of evacuation centres. These make-shift evacuation centres used local institutions, such as churches, schools, and gyms, to provide shelter from the storm, though those inside didn’t have the most ideal conditions. Although they escaped the storm, those within the centres remain at risk to other hazards, namely disease. The centres are especially at risk to water-borne contagious illnesses, due to poor bathroom facilities and inadequate safe water. With such conditions, it’s hard to believe that the Philippine government has improved their disaster relief efforts. As a country that continuously experiences typhoons, one would assume that they have become experts at managing the consequences, but Typhoon Mangkhut showed their shortcomings.

A map of the Philippines showing the province of Cagayan, the province where Typhoon Ompong made landfall. https://tinyurl.com/y8db3qyt

Ompong showed a similar size and direction to one of 2016’s strongest storm, Typhoon Lawin (or Haima, internationally), affecting similar areas and proving to be much more destructive. However, the news surrounding these destructive storms are not all negative; the country seems to have learned how to improve relief efforts as more storms come through. According to an editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the “local and national government response [has] been quick, sensitive, and well-planned”; therefore learning from past typhoons and disasters. In particular, lessons from Typhoon Haiyan  (known locally as “Yolanda”), one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, proved most important and have echoed through the typhoons that followed it. Rebuilding efforts from Haiyan continue to this day. While aid from outside the country pours in, local efforts on the ground remain the focal point of recovery. Knowledge of the most affected areas and the most pressing needs for those affected are best known by local responders and volunteers who live in those regions. Despite external aid, rebuilding efforts, especially that of infrastructure, remain a domestic issue; an issue that often lingers.

Internationally, much of the world has expressed its concerns and put forth aid and assistance. The World Bank, for instance, released US$496 million for the Philippines to put towards general typhoon recovery and relief. In a more immediate sphere, McGill’s own Filipino club, McGill University’s Filipino Asian Students’ Association (MUFASA), has joined the effort in aiding the recovery from Typhoon Ompong. Revenue from its events and sales will go towards the purchase of supplies for those affected by the disaster.

While the immediate response of the Philippine government has been better than previous disasters, much is still needed to be done. Considering the prolongation of Haiyan recovery efforts, it is clear that the immediate response is not enough; rather, it must be sustained to ensure an efficient return to normalcy. Furthermore, while the storm has passed, its effects still linger, and victims at shelters remain at risk for disease and supply shortages. A particularly at-risk group in the storm’s aftermath has been pregnant women in need of medical care and supplies, many of whom are cut off from what they desperately need: immediate access to doctors, a proper diet, and sanitary conditions. Despite the annual typhoon season of the Philippines, recovery from major storms have continued to be stagnant and damage continually major. The country has failed to develop infrastructure that prevents secondary disasters, such as major flooding and landslides, and coverage of disasters and relief efforts are often forgotten past the immediate aftermath of the storm. The inevitable typhoon season has normalized reactions to disasters and coverage often fails to carry past the initial shock of the catastrophe. These acclimated reactions to disasters forget and neglect the true extent to which these storms affect those in its path. Even beyond the Philippines’ constant typhoons, its other consistent disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, result in major upheavals of people’s lives, requiring not just sympathy, but real support and aid as well.

Ompong may not have matched the devastation and severity of Haiyan, but it still proved to be a destructive force that devastated the Philippines. Lessons from Haiyan and other previous storms echo throughout the government response in attempts to avoid both its past mistakes and the pitfalls of history repeating itself. Still, while the government’s immediate disaster relief has improved thanks to lessons from previous typhoons, only time will tell whether the Philippine government has truly learned from its past mistakes and can avoid an extended recovery like that from Typhoon Haiyan.

Edited by Helena Martin