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Why Deadly Philippine Super Typhoon Ended up Sparing Lives

Rescuers carry the body of a man who drowned in floods as Typhoon Goni hit Guinobatan, Albay province, central Philippines, Nov. 1, 2020.
Rescuers carry the body of a man who drowned in floods as Typhoon Goni hit Guinobatan, Albay province, central Philippines, Nov. 1, 2020.

The most powerful typhoon of the year so far killed at least 20 people in the Philippines Sunday but spared many more because of preparedness and a weakening of the storm earlier than expected.

Typhoon Goni made landfall as a super-typhoon with sustained winds up to 225 kph. The deaths were reported in the eastern provinces of Albay and Catanduanes as trees fell, objects flew through the air and mudflows swept one woman away, Philippine media report. A boy and his father were drowned.

But the storm failed to live up to widespread fears that far more would die as they have in past typhoons. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council had estimated the storm would impact 19.8 million to 31.9 million people. Goni ended up affecting around 2 million people, domestic news media outlet said.

Goni weakened within hours after landfall to a category one typhoon, the lowest level on a 1-5 scale, before passing out to sea west of Luzon Island as a less powerful tropical storm early Monday. The tapering of wind speeds spared the capital Manila from the storm’s worst, residents there said.

Ever-improving storm preparedness in the Philippines further helped minimize deaths, analysts said Monday. A plethora of news media and government-operated Facebook pages helped get the word out late last week, said Herman Kraft, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman.

The same outlets aired live broadcasts by public officials throughout Monday on where aid was being distributed.

“You had bad flooding and I think some storm surges, but by and large I think we were prepared, and aside from that was that Typhoon Goni just weakened as it was passing through the rest of the Philippines, so it spared large parts of the country,” Kraft said.

On the preparedness front, Office of Civil Defense administrator Ricardo Jalad said via the presidential office website that 96,543 families - some 346,993 individuals - were “preemptively evacuated.” The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council website warned Saturday that the Bicol peninsula, a region southeast of Manila, was “under serious threat.”

In the past, many people disbelieved typhoon warnings if they saw no immediate signs of storms, said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila. In Metro Manila, he said, people were warned Friday to ready their vehicles for a storm onslaught and plan for power outages.

“I think [with] the constant battery of storms that are coming to the Philippines, the Filipinos now are more prepared for these kinds of emergencies,” Ravelas said.

Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 raised the general alert level, Ravelas said. That storm killed more than 6,000 people, mostly in storm surges on a single eastern island. Disaster response times and coordination among local governments have improved under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, he added. Duterte took office in 2016.

Mobile phone texting of advisories for citizens in the storm’s path is one hallmark of the government’s preparations today, said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila.

“This [kind of text] goes directly into your phone, so you receive it right away,” Rabena said. “Maybe because the government has learned its lesson, it really has to disseminate warnings to the public to really be careful.”

People’s awareness of preventing COVID-19 in a country where caseloads show signs of coming under control after a tough first half of the year also extends to typhoons, Ravelas suggested. The number of daily infections peaked in August and stands at a total of 383,113.

“They’ve slowly worked on that strategy — coming from a reactionary to proactive prevention,” Ravelas said. “It’s like the saying ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’”

But not all evacuees followed social distancing at relief shelters because the emphasis was getting people out of the storm path, Kraft said. “Even if you had masks, people would be cramped in some of those areas,” he said.

Economic impact from the storm was still being calculated as of Monday, but domestic media quoted the agriculture secretary estimating $22.7 million worth of damage to rice and other crops.