Although Typhoon Hagupit flattened houses and claimed dozens of lives, analyst Steven Rood tells DW the extent of the damage could have been much worse had it not been for the local governments' response.
The most powerful typhoon to hit the Southeast Asian nation this year slammed into the Philippines' east coast in the evening of December 6, packing maximum sustained winds of 140 kilometers (87 miles) per hour and gusts of 170 kph (106 mph). The massive storm claimed the lives of at least 27 people, flattened houses, toppled trees, and caused shallow floods in an area still traumatized by the devastation left by last year's super Typhoon Haiyan - which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people.
But although the slow-moving typhoon claimed dozens of lives, devastated remote coastal communities and dumped heavy rain, there was relief that Hagupit - known locally as Ruby - weakened as it traveled west across the central Philippines, passing close to the capital Manila with only a fraction of the forecast torrential rain. The Philippine government also launched a massive evacuation operation ahead of Hagupit that saw millions of people seek shelter.
Steven Rood, Philippines Country Representative at The Asia Foundation, says in a DW interview the local government's response and massive evacuations undoubtedly helped save many lives. However, it remains to be seen whether such pro-active stance on the part of the government will now become the new "normal" in the Philippines, as the country faces repeated natural disasters, the expert adds.
Rood: 'The most important reason for reduced casualties was the mass evacuation of persons from areas in danger of flooding or landslides'
DW: What damage did Typhoon Hagupit inflict on the Philippines?
Steven Rood: Hagupit, known locally as Ruby, destroyed agricultural crops to the tune of approximately a billion pesos (about 250 million USD) and, particularly where it first struck on the Pacific coast of Eastern Samar province, did some damage to buildings and infrastructure. Casualty figures vary somewhat due to communication difficulties, but seem to be in the range of at most 40 deaths.
The municipalities of Barongan and Delores in Eastern Samar were most affected. Tacloban city, early in the typhoon's path, had flood and wind damage, while further along the path (as winds weakened) it was flooding that caused the most damage in Legazpi city in southern Luzon, and in Batangas city, about 100 kilometers south of the capital Manila.
It's still early to tell, but it seems that Hagupit didn't cause much devastation. Why?
It is true that Hagupit, while the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines in 2014, was very much less destructive than was Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) in November 2013. Over 6,000 people died then, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
Infrastructure damage was widespread in 2013, and some of it had not yet been repaired when Hagupit arrived. Thus there was considerable anxiety as the typhoon approached, and relief when the outcome was much less severe than feared.
A combination of meteorological factors and better preparation were credited with this happier outcome.
First, while Hagupit was quite strong as it struck the Philippines, it weakened rapidly so that by the time it left the Philippines 3 days later, it was no longer a typhoon or even a tropical storm, but merely a tropical depression.
Storms ordinarily weaken somewhat when they move over land (and away from the warm seas from which their energy is drawn), but this time the effect was magnified by interaction with the Northeast monsoon bringing down cold air from the north.
Secondly, all sorts of preparation went forward. One reason agricultural damage was reduced was that farmers hastened to harvest their rice crop before the storm arrived. More effective mobilization of volunteers and pre-positioning of supplies and communication equipment were accomplished - all trying to learn the lessons of last year's disaster.
Perhaps the most important reason for reduced casualties was the mass evacuation of persons from areas in danger of flooding or landslides. Characterized as the largest evacuation in the Philippines during peacetime, more than one million people sought shelter in prepared locations - several times as many as had done so before Haiyan in 2013. This was partly due to more vigorous efforts by the authorities, and partly due to a greater willingness of persons to evacuate (given the dire experience of just a year ago).
How powerful was this typhoon?
After the first few hours of landfall, Hagupit became much more like a "normal" typhoon. Filipinos are accustomed to such storms - on average twenty per year traverse the country.
Was it comparable to Haiyan?
Hagupit was not at all comparable to Haiyan, which was the strongest typhoon ever recorded as making landfall anywhere in the world.
Herein lies a paradox. Preparations for Hagupit went forward as if the Philippines was preparing for another Haiyan, and what transpired was just a "normal" storm. Will the average citizen feel that authorities overreacted? For example, all classes in Manila were suspended for two days as a precaution, but all that the metropolis experienced was intermittent rain with no flooding.
Or, will the citizenry decide that the vigorous pro-active stance of the government, with frequent warnings and urging of citizens to move to safer grounds, is the reason for the relative lack of casualties. The province of Albay, in southern Luzon, for years has adopted a pro-active stance and has gained international recognition for its success in limiting casualties during natural calamities. However, it remains to be seen whether this practice will now become the new "normal" in the Philippines, as the country faces repeated natural disasters.
How would you describe the authorities' preparation for the typhoon this time around?
Some of the lessons from Haiyan were applied both at the local government level, and at the national level. For instance, satellite phones were more widely deployed, allowing for communication even after mobile phone service went out. Relief goods were more widely deployed to help feed the evacuees throughout the danger area.
Institutional changes have not yet occurred, however. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the peak organization, remains just a coordinating body rather than an operational one. First response is still in the hands of local governments, which were overwhelmed (sometimes wiped out) in Haiyan - for Hagupit local governments performed admirably.
What role did early evacuations play in terms of reducing the number of casualties?
In the event, early evacuation helped save lives at the beginning of the storm's traverse of the Philippines. As the storm weakened, evacuation turned out to have been less necessary (as little flooding or storm surge occurred) - again, it remains to be seen whether people will feel that government "cried wolf" and ignore future initiatives to preemptively save lives, or will they feel that such efforts are worthwhile repeating.
How is the government responding now that the typhoon has passed?
The priority areas are restoring communications and power, and distributing food to those who were displaced. For the recovery, the Philippine government seems to have sufficient funding (due to improved budgetary governance and sustained economic growth), and national government agencies are mobilizing along their respective mandates: Public Works and Highways, Agriculture, Social Work, etc. Local governments continue to function normally, and can be responsive to their citizens.
What do the people need now most?
Immediate needs are for clean drinking water, food, and emergency shelter. While these are available in-country, the logistics capacities of the international community can help move these supplies to where they are needed.
More generally, a reassurance to the Philippines that the international community still stands ready to help would be most welcome. Filipinos were very grateful for the overwhelming response to Haiyan in November 2013, but worrisome about "donor fatigue."
A particular long-term need that is only beginning to be addressed in the Philippines is psycho-social support after a disaster or traumatic incident. This is the one kind of assistance that victims of Haiyan last year cited as not being available to them. The Department of Health and the Department of Education have begun programs to address this gap, but these are at early stages. International experience and resources on this matter would have a great impact over the years; as such disasters happen every year.
Dr. Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation's Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. You can follow him on Twitter @StevenRoodPH.