President Benigno Aquino on Thursday told reporters he had ordered the relocation of communities vulnerable to flooding, landslides and storm surges as the death toll from Typhoon “Pablo” went past the 900 mark with another 900 missing and feared dead and nearly 80,000 in evacuation centers.
In an ambush interview with reporters, the President disclosed plans to uproot entire communities within “geohazard” maps produced by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau.
“We will convince the communities that it will be in their interest to relocate to higher, safer grounds,” Mr. Aquino said, adding that he had directed the holding of dialogues with
residents of communities in geohazard zones.
“In certain instances, we really can’t wait for all the consultations to be over before we transfer them,” he said.
On Wednesday, the President met for five hours in Malacañang with officials in charge of search and relief operations for victims of Pablo (international name: “Bopha”), which slammed Mindanao on Dec. 4, flattening farmlands, igniting flash floods and landslides, and tearing down tens of thousands of houses.
Joining the closed-door meeting were Lt. Gen. Jorge Segovia, the commander of the Eastern Mindanao Command who was summoned to Manila from the disaster zone, along with Col. Edgardo de Leon, chief of Operations Search and Rescue, Navy Capt. Robert Empedrad, commander of Maritime Search and Rescue, and Col. Randy Tibayan, commander of Aerial Search and Rescue.
Mr. Aquino acknowledged that climate change and the more intense and frequent storms it has triggered in the country called for drastic measures.
“The communities will be moved to safer areas. What is important here is, first thing, we have an inventory (of the hazardous areas),” he said.
“Then, after the inventory, there will be prioritization—the areas most in danger will be prioritized, but eventually we will hold summits to discuss the transfer of communities,” he said.
Part of measures to reduce risks is to “ensure that evacuation centers are really safer,” the President said.
Many evacuation centers were damaged as well in Pablo’s devastating onslaught.
Death toll tops 900
On Thursday, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Center (NDRRMC) said that the confirmed death toll from the 16th cyclone to hit the country this year had reached 902. Another 934 people were reported missing.
The agency said 19,212 families composed of 79,885 people were still in evacuation centers.
The number of deaths could easily exceed the 1,200 fatalities recorded in the aftermath of Tropical Storm “Sendong,” which plowed across Mindanao a year ago.
Residents uprooted by Sendong were told not to rebuild their homes in so-called geohazard areas, but they simply ignored the pleas for lack of viable alternatives.
Global appeal for $65M
The UN Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs has issued a global appeal for $65 million to help the Aquino administration provide assistance to 5.4 million people affected by Pablo.
The appeal said these people would require aid for the next six months. The immediate needs are food, water and temporary shelters, it said.
Amid climate change, the UN International Strategy on Disaster Risk Reduction has long advocated the relocation of entire communities from geohazard areas—which are vulnerable to disasters—to save lives and mitigate losses.
However, local government officials—fearful of losing the support of their constituents—have been ignoring this warning.
Buried in boulders
“Are there other places like Barangay (village) Andap—those which are in positions that are too risky?” President Aquino asked, referring to the village in the town of New Bataan in Compostela Valley.
Andap was buried in a pile of boulders, according to the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines. “The village was overwhelmed by a rapid downward moving mass of material that was fluid as wet cement and composed of boulders, gravel and sand. In its wake, it left a pile of rubble called a debris flow deposit,” it said. In its place is a new river bed with an estimated width of nearly a kilometer, the institute said.
The President also mentioned the coastal town of Boston, Davao Oriental, which was flattened by Pablo, as shown by an aerial picture taken on Dec. 7 by Assistant Press Secretary Rey Marfil, who was with the President when select Cabinet members flew over the area four days after the typhoon rampage.
He observed that Boston had hills right after the shoreline that serve as natural barriers against strong winds. He said communities could relocate behind these hills instead of rebuilding their houses at the edge of the sea.
Difficulty with choppers
The President said in the Compostela Valley alone the typhoon affected 83,000 families. “Not all of them will probably need assistance. There are those who really need our help. So, it’s a question of rehabilitating communities, and my instructions are to place them in safer places.”
He said helicopters were having difficulty penetrating mountain villages in the valley, especially those nestled between 8,000 and 9,000 feet.
“The ceiling of our helicopters is roughly about 10,000 feet. If the cloud ceiling is very close to the uppermost ceiling of helicopters, the flight crews are in danger. They can operate only when the weather permits—meaning, the cloud ceiling is high—and we can reach isolated areas,” Mr. Aquino said.
He said this meant the helicopters could fly mercy missions only in the early morning hours, before noon.
The NDRRMC estimated damage to agriculture and properties at P14.3 billion. Various state agencies had already provided over P76.36 million in assistance to the typhoon victims, it said.
The typhoon damaged 148,887 houses and destroyed 19 bridges, the NDRRMC said. At least 35 areas in Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental were still experiencing power interruptions and six other towns were having water supply problems.
“Communication was restored in Compostela Valley and only three areas in Davao Oriental are presently having interrupted communication,” the NDRRMC said.