Typhoon Vongfong leaves trail of damage as the country grapples with the ‘new normal’
Torrential rain, violent winds and floods leave 115 people injured and two dead
(20 May 2020) Typhoon Vongfong (local name Ambo) weakened from a Category 3 typhoon to a tropical storm after traversing from central through to northern Philippines, making seven landfalls from 14 to 15 May and leaving the Luzon landmass on the morning of 16 May. The weather system dissipated to a low pressure area and exited the Philippine Area of Responsibility on the afternoon of 18 May.
According to the latest report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), about 382,700 people were affected in 276 barangays in Regions II, III, V, VII and CAR. While more than 180,000 have evacuated ahead of the typhoon’s arrival, local government units ordered the decampment of displaced families as soon as the winds and rains passed. All evacuation centres are closed per the DSWD report. There were two fatalities and 115 injuries reported.
With its combination of torrential rains and violent winds, Vongfong left a trail of extensive damage in its wake in a country dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak at the same time. According to initial damage reports from the NDRRMC, 3,000 houses were destroyed while 13,900 sustained damages, mostly in Eastern Samar province where Typhoon Ambo made its first landfall. The Department of Agriculture reported estimated damages to the agriculture sector at US$30.8 million (PhP1.56 billion) with 25,000 hectares affected, resulting in production losses of 65,000 metric tons in rice, corn and other high-value crops. It is estimated that 40,000 farmers have been affected. At least 23 health facilities were damaged, of which three are non-functional including a COVID-19 accredited testing laboratory. Over 120 schools have also incurred damages. Damages to infrastructure is estimated at $11.4 million (PhP525 million).
The province of Eastern Samar declared a State of Calamity and requested national government to activate quick response funds to help in the response and recovery. According to the provincial governor, the calamity funds of local government units are already depleted as they were used for the COVID-19 response.
Testing for COVID-19 hampered in the entire region
With large parts of the country under movement restrictions and lockdowns, local officials are pointing to the double challenge of keeping their residents safe from both the typhoon and COVID-19, while noting the difficulty in maintaining physical distancing throughout temporary shelters. According to local governments, evacuations took time as residents could not be transported in large numbers and evacuation centres had to be filled only to half their usual capacity to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease.
The typhoon also caused the temporary suspension of COVID-19 tests after it damaged a facility in the Bicol Region’s only accredited testing laboratory. The exhaust duct of the health facility’s biological safety cabinet was damaged by strong winds. The cabinet prevents contamination of samples while they are being processed for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Some 150 specimens that were scheduled to be tested in the laboratory will now be redirected to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Metro Manila. In Eastern Samar, the governor reported that the province has identified isolation facilities in different towns with a total of 600 beds, of which nearly 400 are now either damaged or destroyed.
Government response to address most pressing needs
The government is leading the response, with the Office of Civil Defense coordinating with Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Health, military, and local authorities to provide food and other relief assistance to affected communities, which to date is valued at over $109,000 (PhP5.6 million). DSWD has activated its inter-regional relief assistance wherein 1,200 family food packs from Cebu City were sent to Northern Samar. An additional 5,000 family food packs were delivered by a military plane for distribution in Northern and Eastern Samar provinces. The DSWD field office in Bicol also provided 1,400 family food packs for Albay and Sorsogon provinces.
To support the affected farmers, the agriculture department has set aside a quick standby response fund of around $13 million (PhP700 million) for the rehabilitation of affected areas and has pre-positioned 100,000 bags of rice seeds, 10,000 bags of corn seeds and 1,100 kilograms of vegetable seeds. An initial indemnity of $1.78 million (PhP90.5 million) will be granted to 11,000 affected farmers who availed of crop insurance.
Humanitarian community to gather learning on emergency relief in times of COVID-19
OCHA and the Inter-Cluster Coordination Group are conducting a virtual assessment by tapping local partners on the ground in the affected areas. The primary objective is to understand the impact of the typhoon and identify key preparedness and response considerations by local governments and affected people while adhering to the minimum health protocols for COVID 19. The outcome of this exercise will form the basis for the review and updating of the Humanitarian Country Team contingency plan and minimum operating protocols for natural disaster and armed conflict events and align them with existing COVID-19 protocols. It will also exemplify how response to future natural disasters will look like under the “new normal.”