Typhoon Ambo (international name: Vongfong), the first named tropical cyclone (TC) in the Northwest Pacific basin and the first typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines in 2020, has left a trail of destruction in Eastern Visayas and Luzon, adding to the challenges of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos at the height of the COVID-19 crisis.
Since the Philippine government began implementation of community quarantines in mid-March, it gave several assurances that food supply would be sufficient for the duration of the quarantine period and the months immediately after. It was the logistics of distribution and access to the markets that were affected by the implementation of community quarantines all across the country, particularly in Metro Manila, as both public and private transportation and the general movement of people were prohibited.
In the aftermath of Ambo, the Department of Agriculture (DA) reported about PhP 1.04 billion worth of agricultural damage and losses and over 20,000 farmers and fisherfolks affected. Ambo inflicted crop production loss of 62,228 metric tons, damaging as much as 20,652 hectares of agricultural areas. Agricultural high-value crops (banana, assorted vegetables, and papaya) incurred the biggest loss among the affected commodities at 69% (PhP 793.15 million), followed by rice at 16% (PhP 184.58 million), and corn at 10% (PhP 117.11 million). Fisheries and livestock incurred minimal losses (at 2% each) (Manila Bulletin (MB), 18 May 2020).
Making its first landfall in San Policarpo, Eastern Samar on 14 May 2020 at 12:15 PM with over 150 kph of maximum sustained winds, Ambo moved across the northern part of Samar provinces and made six (6) more landfalls over Dalupiri Island (Northern Samar), Capul Island (Northern Samar), Ticao Island (Masbate), Burias Island (Masbate), San Andres (Quezon) and Real (Quezon) (NDRRMC, 20 May 2020), before weakening into a severe tropical storm. It continued to head for the northern part of Quezon and Laguna on 15 May 2020, then traversed through Central to Northern Luzon with gradually decreasing intensity as it interacted with Luzon‘s rugged mountainous terrain. By the morning of 16 May, Ambo reached the coasts of Ilocos Sur and tracked offshore towards Taiwan. It was then downgraded into a tropical depression status and weakened into a low pressure system on 17 May (PAGASA, 17 May 2020).
Along Ambo’s track, a total of nine (9) hospital facilities in Albay, Sorsogon, Western and Eastern Samar were damaged (NDRRMC, 20 May 2020). One of these is the Bicol Regional Diagnostic and Reference Laboratory, the region’s only COVID-19 testing center approved by the Department of Health (DOH). As a result, samples will be sent to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in the National Capital Region (NCR) for processing (MB, 19 May 2020).
Typhoon Ambo dumped a significant amount of rain along its path. Flooding and landslides in some areas temporarily rendered major roads and bridges impassable. Power outages were reported in 263 areas at the height of Typhoon Ambo’s passage. Communication lines were disrupted in some areas in Eastern Visayas. Ports were also temporarily closed but immediately resumed operations.
Based on the latest report by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC, 20 May 2020), Typhoon Ambo affected almost 100,000 families, damaged almost 17,000 houses, and temporarily displaced over 46,000 families (182,916 individuals).
Typhoon Ambo also left five (5) dead and more than 50 injured, mostly in the Eastern Visayas Region (MB, 18 May 2020).
Metro Manila, Laguna and Rizal, which are among the places with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, were not spared by Typhoon Ambo’s rain and winds.
During the evacuation of those residing in hazard-prone areas, one of the biggest challenges was transporting and fitting people into evacuation centers while ensuring that appropriate physical distancing measures and hygiene were observed. This reduced the transportation and evacuation capacity by more than half. In order to avoid virus infections, an evacuation center that could house as many as 40 families can only accommodate four (4) (Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), 19 May 2020). In some areas, evacuation became more problematic since some of the designated evacuation centers were already converted into COVID-19 quarantine facilities.
Evacuation efforts also took time since disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) officers and responders needed to wear masks and other protective equipment before the operation.
A destructive typhoon at the height of a nationwide and global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what could happen when crises occur simultaneously. Our preventive measures against COVID-19 had to be integrated into our “usual way of doing things” of preparing for and responding to extreme weather events and climate-related hazards like Typhoon Ambo. In return, hazards like Typhoon Ambo may increase the risk of transmission and put additional pressure on our systems and infrastructure.
Sadly, this double whammy is just the beginning.
The Southwest Monsoon (Habagat) and rainy season (in areas under Type 2 climate) is just around the corner (Read more here.) On top of this, around 10 to 13 tropical cyclones are also expected to develop and/or enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility in the next six months (PAGASA, April 2020). Based on a long-term climatology study by Cinco et. al. (2016), the months with the most TC activity are July, August and September; with July, October and November as the months with the most number of TCs making landfall. These come with additional risks of climate-related hazards such as flooding, landslides, strong winds, storm surge, among others.
Before and after Typhoon Ambo, most parts of the country have been experiencing warm temperatures, some at dangerous levels of the Maximum Heat Index. On the 11th of May, PAGASA recorded a temperature of 41.2°C in Echague, Isabela and a maximum heat index of 58.0°C in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro on 20 April – the highest so far this year (PAGASA, 20 May 2020). PAGASA (April 2020) predicts a generally near- to above-average temperature and near-normal rainfall conditions in most parts of the country from May to October this year.
How will these projections put further strain on our complex situation?
Compounded health issues. The rainy season coupled with peak TC activity will increase the risk of flooding which may bring in other diseases like dengue and leptospirosis. This will further stretch our healthcare system by requiring additional human resources and separate health facilities already under extreme pressure from COVID-19. Since the virus tends to infect those whose health conditions are compromised, susceptibility to contract the virus increases if people are suddenly taken ill by other complications.
Limited transport and mobility. Flooded roads will present new challenges to healthcare workers / frontliners reporting to and from hospitals/health facilities, and to the delivery of essential services that ply these roads. While traffic may not be an issue, vehicle repair and towing services may not be easily accessible and available especially in quarantined areas.
Repair of damages to infrastructure. Typhoon Ambo’s destructive winds caused PhP 578 million worth of damages to infrastructure. Should more intense tropical cyclones come our way, affected households will find it more difficult to rebuild / recover from the destruction and disruption that will be brought about by climate-related hazards. As it is, they may already be finding it difficult to make the necessary preparations and precautions for the rainy and TC season, such as stocking up on needed food and medical supplies.
In the backdrop are households and family breadwinners who have lost their jobs and whose livelihoods were affected by the COVID-19 quarantine measures. Ensuring structural repairs are carried out while complying with health and safety requirements to minimize risk of exposure or transmission may take a backseat to securing one’s home.
Decline in GDP. On a broader scale, both the COVID-19 and climate-related hazards affect the country’s economic activities. With the disruptions in trade, tourism, and manufacturing, among others, due to the pandemic, the country will see its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growing at a rate of only 2% in 2020. This GDP growth is significantly lower than that in 2018 and 2019 with 6.2% and 5.9%, respectively (Asian Development Bank (ADB), 2020). As it unfolds, the looming economic crisis brought about by COVID-19 quarantine measures can be further exacerbated by additional risks due to climate-related hazards (Philipps et al., 2020). Every year, losses caused by extreme weather events like tropical cyclones represent 0.8% of the country’s GDP (ADB, 2013 as cited by Tito Santos 2018).
Limited / Dwindling resources. Local Government Units (LGUs) are already reaching deep into their annual budgets / Calamity Funds to “flatten the curve”; they may have to reach deeper to allocate more resources for evacuation, relief and response, and recovery from the impending extreme weather events and climate-related hazards. LGUs can expect to be constantly faced with the complexity of conducting evacuation and response procedures to climate-related hazards that are highly responsive to the minimum health requirements needed to curtail further spread of COVID-19, providing relief and temporary shelter to those severely affected, and restarting / reinvigorating local business post-hazard to ensure livelihoods and the local economy continue to be viable.
Risk of increased transmission or rise in cases. Even without the factor of weather and climate, experts from the University of the Philippines expect COVID-19 cases in the country to increase by as much as 70,000 and COVID-related deaths by over 3,000 by the end of May 2020 upon premature lifting of the government-imposed Enhanced Community Quarantine (David et al., 2020).
We are yet to see the direct effect of extreme weather events such as Typhoon Ambo and climate-related hazards in the transmission and infection rates of COVID-19. A study by Quigley et. al. (2020) tried to model what will happen to the COVID-19 infection rates of the United States, China, Australia and Bangladesh after introducing an external event such as a natural disaster. Their preliminary results show an increase in infection rate above the projected control curve, with varying degrees of increase depending on the timing of the event and social distancing measures in place.
With the looming rainy and active TC season after Typhoon Ambo, will we also see a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases? Will there be a shift in COVID-19 hotspots due to the increased risk of transmission brought by unavoidable consequences of people evacuating and seeking shelter from these hazards?
But the more important question is: what “new” systems need to be put in place taking these complications in consideration? Do we have enough relevant information or available tools to respond accordingly?
Dependencies, Redundancies and the Need for Data: During a crisis, the interdependencies of sectors and services, e.g. how damage / disruption in one critical component / sector can render others unserviceable, are almost always highlighted. With the COVID-19 crisis and the impending impacts of climate-related hazards, there is a need to build redundancies in the provision of essential goods such as food, water and medicine, and in the continuity of services such as power, communication and transportation.
Developing such interventions, however, rely on sufficient and timely data, such as data on new dependencies and interoperability (patterns and relationships) of systems that can inform preparedness and prevention plans, and improve information flows across decision makers, service providers and responders. As an example, the current quarantine policies suffer from lack of sufficient data; projections on infection and transmission rates are saddled by the inability to do wide and massive testing, which would give a more accurate picture. Focusing efforts on gathering key information will not only help develop targeted strategies but ensure such strategies are more efficient and effective in the use of limited resources.
Recovery of Order and Time: When new interdependencies and interoperability are determined, there will be a need to revisit DRRM plans as these might not have included a pandemic complicated by climate-related hazards, or vice-versa, as main considerations. As situations become more complex to the point of being chaotic, the immediate priority is to contain the problem, and to respond at once even if it might not be the best solution at the time. When there is not enough time to think, restoring order is imperative so that chaos is eliminated and more time is gained towards problem-solving.
For those affected by Typhoon Ambo, recovery efforts must include rapid response interventions so that the situation does not enter chaos. This can include assistance from national and international organizations that can provide support and resources in the immediate term, but might be hindered by limitations brought by COVID-19 quarantine measures, physical distancing, and reduced economic activities. Potential policy or operational barriers to accessing such interventions must be quickly reviewed and made more responsive to complex situations.
Investments in multiple crisis management: Many will be quick to say that government response has been slow and inadequate. While this may be true in many respects, we must also recognize that no government has totally prepared for this global and multi-crisis. At the very least and in a more optimistic sense, the creation of an inter-agency task force may be viewed as a first step in recognizing new interdepencies in functionalities and that a new system is to be apprehended, and will thus require new sets of responses.
However, while building different teams / task forces to respond to a specific or complex crisis may be a way to go, this may not be an easy option for all people, or for all situations. In the long run, protocols and capacities must be able to respond to multiple crises happening at once. Most LGU personnel and staff, including financial and other resources, are currently focused on managing COVID-19 and municipal / city / barangay emergency response teams may already be exhausted from responding to the pandemic since March.
To address this, investments in building and developing needed skills and competencies in disaster and crisis management should be considered, and increasingly for multi-disaster / multi-crisis scenarios. Institutions must also begin to move towards flexibility and agility to reconfigure or reorganize in response to evolving situations.
Community-driven action: With the national and local government already overwhelmed with the COVID-19 crisis, the intervention and mobilization of resources from the private and other sectors will be crucial. In situations such as now, everyone has a part to play, so much so that everyone must do heroic acts. It has been said that the fight against COVID-19 begins in the home, with families being the first line of defense, the invisible frontliner. If everyone thought of themselves as frontliners, everyone might be exercising more vigilance, taking more preventive measures, and being better prepared. When this happens, then can we say that the spirit of bayanihan has truly come alive…
As we continue to face the extraordinary challenges presented by COVID-19, we must also prepare to face climate-related challenges in the coming months. Our already upturned world, where people have been forced to adopt “new” ways of doing things in response to the global health crisis, will be further complicated. Change has come. And now, before ways get set or get overwhelmed yet again, is a unique opportunity to keep examining our “way of doing things” and to review our “pre-existing plans, protocols and measures” towards adopting a more proactive, long-term and holistic way of building resilience.
Part 3 of this series will provide more insights in how we can promote more holistic and resilient systems in the face of multiple threats like climate change, tropical cyclones and pandemics.
Read Part 1 of this series: “Typhon Ambo threatens COVID-weary communities, modifications to current response strategies required”.
Read previously published advisories: “Achieving a level of preparedness for disasters” and “Rhythm of the falling rain”.
Download the State of the Philippine Climate, an annual report that summarizes observations of the country’s climate and climate-related disasters. Weather and climate trends in 2015 to 2018 are available.
Download the Philippine Climate Almanac, which highlights the record-breaking and other significant statistics of climate-related variables, extreme events and disasters across seven decades through data visualizations.
Stream “Mga Kwento ng Klima” on the ABS-CBN News YouTube channel: Part 1: Intro and “Hinagupit ng Bagyo”, Part 2: “Nilamon ng Tubig”, Part 3: “Sinukol ng Gutom”, Part 4: “Enerhiya at Kalikasan”, and Part 5: “Binuhay ng Pagasa”. Produced in partnership with ABS-CBN DocuCentral, “Mga Kwento ng Klima” chronicles the story of the changing climate in the context of the Filipino experience and the ongoing story of Filipino resilience amidst ever increasing vulnerabilities.