Powerful typhoon Ambo (international name Vongfong) hit the central Philippines Thursday, forcing a complicated and risky evacuation for tens of thousands already hunkered down at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Before sundown Wednesday, government weather forecasters said Ambo, the first to hit the country in 2020, had intensified its fury while moving west-northwestward as the center of the typhoon was estimated at 315 km east of Borongan City in Eastern Samar.
The typhoon, expected to force the evacuation of 400,000 people in Northern Samar alone, had maximum sustained winds of 95 kph near the center and gustiness of up to 115 kph, with forecaster warning of moderate to heavy rains Thursday that could cause flooding and landslides over Eastern Visayas, Catanduanes, Albay, Sorsogon and Masbate.
The Philippine National Police, meanwhile, said the command would continue to strictly enforce quarantine guidelines in affected areas while coordinating with local government units and other law enforcement agencies for unified course of action to protect the public from Ambo and COVID-19.
“Amid challenges faced by the PNP, it will remain resolute and ready for disaster preparedness and response operations to protect lives and properties from Typhoon Ambo as it continues to defend our citizens from COVID-19,” said PNP spokesman Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac.
At least 200,000 people live in coastal areas or flimsy homes in the province near where the storm made landfall with fierce winds and heavy rain.
READ: Signal No. 1 up in Samar over ‘Ambo’
Tens of millions more live along the typhoon’s path, which is expected to take it near Metro Manila, where almost 13 million of the country’s population of 108 million live.
Because of the twin threat of the storm and the virus, evacuation centers in the central Philippines will only accept half their capacity and evacuees will have to wear face masks.
The surge of people and limited space mean authorities have asked 47 big churches in the area to accept people fleeing the typhoon.
“We will be overwhelmed so we’re expanding our evacuation to include churches,” said Cedric Daep, disaster chief in central Albay province.
Areas in the typhoon’s path are under varying levels of virus quarantine, yet many people are staying at home to avoid infection.
The Philippines has reported 772 deaths and 11,618 cases of the virus, though the number is believed to be higher due to limited testing.
Typhoons are a dangerous and disruptive part of life in the Philippine archipelago, which gets hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons each year.
READ: Bicol braces for ‘Ambo’s’ landfall Thursday
The storms put millions of people in disaster-prone areas in a state of constant poverty and cycle of rebuilding.
Typhoon Kammuri, which hit the Philippines in early December, damaged or destroyed 484,000 houses and caused more than a million people to flee, according to the social welfare department.
A July 2019 study by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank said the most frequent storms lop one percent off the Philippine economy, with the stronger ones cutting economic output by nearly three percent.
The country’s deadliest cyclone on record was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health reminded local government officials to implement physical distancing measures inside evacuation centers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“(Even) when we have evacuation centers, minimum health standards should still be implemented,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said during the Laging Handa virtual briefing.
“We must implement a strategy where families are one-meter apart from each other inside the evacuation centers,” Vergeire said.
“When we look at our evacuation centers, most of the local government units have their own tents, which allows (sic) each family to be separated. I hope that can be implemented so they could at least observe minimum health standards to prevent further infection in these kinds of facilities,” she said.
At the same time, the PNP alerted all unit commanders, particularly along Ambo’s path, while directing its forces to work closely with state disaster managers in their areas ensure public safety amid COVID-19 pandemic.
READ: ‘Ambo’, quake trigger warning
All PNP response operations for Typhoon Ambo shall observe the minimum health standards such as wearing of face masks, face shields, gloves, social distancing, regular washing of hands, use of alcohol and sanitizers and other measures.
While evacuation of people has started in the Bicol region, road networks connecting Eastern and Western Samar have been closed to traffic due to Ambo’s whirlwind.
In Buhi, Camarines Sur, about 700 families have been sheltered in government facilities to protect them from Ambo’s fury, which threatens the population with massive flooding.
About 200 truck drivers and helpers are stranded in along the Bicol national high.
About 9, 700 individuals in Northern Samar have been brought to various temporary shelters to escape Ambo’s wrath after making a landfall.
In the Senate, Senator Juan Edgardo Angara urged local government units in Ambo’s projected path to activate their standard operating procedures but consider the COVID-19 protocols.
The senator said he was aware of the amount of preparations the LGUs have to undertake whenever they are in the path of a storm.
But he said the threat of community transmission of COVID-19 must be integrated into their contingency plans “because we don’t want this disease to compound to (sic) the problems already being faced by the affected provinces at this time.”
In preparing the evacuation centers, Angara said the social distancing should still be observed and everyone should be wearing face masks and practicing good personal hygiene.
The challenge to these provinces will be even greater now that some of its evacuation sites are already being used as quarantine centers for COVID-19, he said.
Heavy rainfall is expected over Eastern Visayas and the Bicol provinces – Catanduanes, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Sorsogon, and Masbate – based on the forecast of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration.
“This is going to be difficult for sure. But what we are after here is saving lives. We don’t want a situation where we have zero casualties from the storm but end up losing the people we love later on due to this deadly virus,” Angara said.
He said: “The entire nation is praying that Ambo will spare us from severe damages and casualties.
“We are faced with an extraordinary situation right now with COVID-19, but if we all work together and cooperate, I am certain that we will survive this. We will once again show the world how resilient we are as a people.” With AFP