Typhoon Goni spared the Philippine capital. Will Manila be so lucky next time?

Typhoon Goni appeared to have largely bypassed Manila by the end of the day on Nov 1, with no fatalities reported there.
Typhoon Goni appeared to have largely bypassed Manila by the end of the day on Nov 1, with no fatalities reported there.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - The Philippines was braced for the worst. When Typhoon Goni made landfall in the disaster-plagued nation on Sunday morning (Nov 1), with sustained winds of 217 kmh, it ranked as the most powerful storm to hit the Southeast Asian nation in years.

Manila, the low-lying, crowded capital, looked to be squarely in the typhoon's path. Roughly 1.5 million families in the city live near railroad tracks, garbage dumps and fetid waterways, their flimsy shacks and shantytowns defenseless against every wind gust and storm surge.

But by day's end, Goni, known locally as Rolly, appeared to have largely bypassed the capital, with no fatalities reported there.

At least 16 people were confirmed to have died from the typhoon in the Bicol region southeast of the capital. Rivers overflowed, tree branches flew and wet concretelike mudflows poured down the slopes of a volcano.

"Thanks be to God we were largely spared," said Mr Francisco Domagoso, Manila's mayor. "But we are one with the people of the Bicol region, who bore the brunt of the storm."

Late Sunday evening, the national weather agency said that Goni had made its way across Luzon, the Philippines' most populous island, and would weaken to a tropical storm within 24 hours.

The Philippines may have been lucky with Goni, the 18th typhoon to strike the country this year. But it remains starkly exposed to a multitude of natural disasters.

The country is situated on the so-called Ring of Fire, a seismically active swath encircling the Pacific Ocean that is roiled by earthquakes and volcanoes. Typhoons regularly batter the Philippine archipelago, packed with more than 100 million people. Deadly floods and landslides are common.

And now climate change is exacerbating the Philippines' exposure to natural disasters, making it one of the most vulnerable countries on the planet, scientists say.

As sea-surface temperatures rise, the Philippines' positioning in warm ocean waters means the country is being subjected to both bigger and more frequent tropical storms.

Residents of densely populated slums are particularly imperiled. So are miners and farmers who excavate and till mountainous earth, creating slippery, muddy conditions in which torrents of soil can bury people alive.

Mass deforestation, including the destruction of mangroves along the coastlines, has torn away natural barriers to wind and water.

The Asian Development Bank says that more than 23,000 people in the Philippines died from natural hazards from 1997 to 2016 as the warming planet brought more powerful storms.

"Climate change is a big international idea, but we are facing this on the local level and we aren't equipped with enough progressive vision for it," said Prof Dakila Kim P. Yee, a sociologist at the University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College.

Still, the country has honed a resilient national character as it confronts disaster after disaster, Prof Yee said.

After Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, churned across the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 6,300 people, local governments began drawing up better evacuation plans. That catastrophic storm destroyed or severely damaged more than 4 million homes, and the widespread looting that followed it devastated the university city of Tacloban.

Nearly 1 million people were evacuated before Goni made landfall Sunday, disaster management officials said.

Such mass efforts, which took place even as some typhoon evacuation centres were being used to house coronavirus patients, surely saved lives. But the building damage sustained by Goni in the Bicol region, with roofs sheared off buildings and torrents of water uprooting entire houses, will become clearer as day breaks Monday and the displaced make their way back to their homes.

Compounding matters, ABS-CBN, a popular news network that offered crucial free TV and radio broadcasts, had been ordered off the air in August, after President Rodrigo Duterte accused it of bias.

Many Filipinos in remote provinces had seen the network as a lifeline as they struggled to cope with emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic. Without ABS-CBN's broadcasts, some of those most jeopardised by Goni were left without access to critical information.

In Albay province, one of the worst-hit areas of Bicol, Mr A.J. Miraflor, a resident, said the typhoon had been "powerful and winds were howling". On social media, Miraflor posted dramatic images from his mobile phone of people stranded on their rooftops as floodwaters swept through the village of Cagsawa.

But another typhoon in 2006, which killed 2,000 people, had been even worse, Mr Miraflor said, a reminder that Goni is no isolated event.

Last week, 22 people were killed as Typhoon Molave cut a path across the same region that Goni powered through.

If Goni had maintained its ferocity and taken a different path, the damage would have been hard to fathom. Up to 20 million people might have been affected, said Mr Ricardo Jalad, the head of the national disaster agency.

Before the storm system was downgraded in intensity, the national weather agency had warned of "complete roof failure on many residences and industrial buildings", as well as "total damage to banana plantations".

All signs and billboards in affected areas were in danger of being blown down, and electricity and telecommunications services would be "severely disrupted", the agency said.

Such warnings will now be reserved for when - not if - the next big storm comes to the Philippines. The national weather agency is already warning that another tropical storm, Atsani, will soon be following in Goni's footsteps.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Red Cross said it would contribute S$50,000 to Philippine Red Cross to support its disaster relief efforts for Super Typhoon Goni. 

​Mr Benjamin William, Secretary-General and CEO of Singapore Red Cross, said, “The successive typhoons and heavy rains have exacerbated the already-challenging situation caused by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The situation is expected to worsen in the coming weeks and we must work together to prevent this humanitarian crisis from escalating further."

The organisation is also helping the affected areas with short-term recovery projects such as the rehabilitation of latrines, and livelihood support for the victims.

The Singapore Red Cross has activated its “Restoring Family Links” (RFL) service to assist Singaporeans and others to locate their immediate family members who may have been affected by the disaster with whom they have difficulty in contacting. Please contact them at rfl@redcross.sg for assistance. 

If you wish to donate towards humanitarian aid for displaced survivors, or recovery and resilience efforts, please make an online donation at www.redcross.give.asia/seafloods2020 Or via PayNow to UEN S86CC0370EGEN (indicate "Southeast Asia Floods 2020" in the remarks).