Evacuees face double threat—virus, Typhoon Ambo
The first typhoon of this year’s cyclone season slammed into the central Philippines on Thursday, forcing a complicated and risky evacuation for tens of thousands of people already hunkered down at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 200,000 people live in coastal areas or flimsy houses in Eastern Samar province, where Typhoon Ambo (international name: Vongfong) made landfall around noon with fierce winds and heavy rain.
Tens of millions more live along Ambo’s path, which is expected to take the howler near densely populated Metropolitan Manila, the national capital region that is under lockdown to suppress the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes the severe respiratory disease COVID-19.
Because of the twin threat of the typhoon and the coronavirus, evacuation centers in Bicol and Eastern Visayas regions are accepting only half their capacity and evacuees are required to wear protective masks.
Just before Ambo hit land in San Policarpio town in Eastern Samar at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire issued a reminder to local officials in Bicol and Eastern Visayas to ensure social distancing and observance of health measures in evacuation centers, including wearing masks, frequent hand-washing and practicing proper cough etiquette.
As thousands were taken into shelters, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque gave assurance that the government was ready to respond to Ambo even as it grappled with the coronavirus outbreak.
“Our relief goods are enough and our evacuation centers are ready as well. Social distancing will be enforced,” Roque said at a press briefing.
Areas in Ambo’s path are under varying levels of coronavirus quarantine and many people are staying at home to avoid infection at evacuation centers.
As of 4 p.m. on Thursday, the typhoon’s eye was in the vicinity of San Jose de Buan in Samar province. The typhoon maintained its strength, with maximum winds of up to 155 kilometers per hour.
Ambo’s gustiness picked up after the cyclone hit land and was up to 255 kph by late afternoon, compared with 190 kph earlier in the day.
‘This is a strong typhoon’
If it continued moving westward at 15 kph, Ambo was expected to make a second landfall in Sorsogon province in Bicol between Thursday evening and Friday morning, said Aldzcar Aurelio, a weather specialist at the government weather service Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa).
“This is a strong typhoon,” Aurelio said in an interview. “It can bring heavy rains that can cause landslides and floods, especially in communities near rivers.”
Photos and videos circulating online showed damage to houses and trees in Eastern Samar as Ambo hit land.
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, tropical cyclone wind signal No. 3 was raised in Sorsogon, Albay and Masbate provinces, including Ticao and Burias islands and the southern part of Camarines Sur province.
In Eastern Visayas, signal No. 3 was up in Northern Samar, northern part of Eastern Samar and northern part of Samar.
Pagasa raised signal No. 2 in Camarines Norte, the rest of Camarines Sur, southern part of Quezon, Marinduque, northernmost part of Leyte, the rest of Samar and the rest of Eastern Samar.
Signal No. 1 in Metro Manila
Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, the rest of Quezon, Romblon, Bataan, Pampanga, Aurora and the southern part of Nueva Ecija were under signal No. 1.
In the Visayas, signal No. 1 was raised in the rest of northern Leyte, northeastern Iloilo and northern Cebu.
Ambo was expected to maintain its strength as it moved northward from Bicol. It was forecast to be in the vicinity of Catanauan town in Quezon province by Friday afternoon.
Pagasa said Ambo might weaken into a severe tropical storm by Saturday, when it would be in the vicinity of Abra province.
Ambo is expected to leave Philippine territory as a tropical depression by Tuesday.
Ahead of Ambo’s arrival, more than 70,000 families in Northern Samar were taken from their homes and sheltered in public schools and barangay halls.
Josiah Echano, the provincial disaster chief, said physical distancing rules were imposed on the evacuees to prevent coronavirus infections.
In Catarman, the municipal government evacuated more than 950 residents of the flood-prone villages of Daganas, Dalakit, Talisay and Abad Santos. It also handed out relief to families hunkered down at home trying to avoid infection.
In Bicol and Calabarzon regions, thousands of people living in coastal towns were evacuated to government shelters, where they were told to maintain physical distancing.
The measure meant the shelters would be able to admit only half their capacity, and local officials had to ask 47 churches to accept people fleeing the typhoon.
“We will be overwhelmed so we’re expanding our evacuation to include churches,” said Cedric Daep, disaster chief of Albay.
Daep said local disaster councils were advised to strictly enforce health measures while carrying out evacuations.
Many people who needed to be moved were told to stay with relatives who had strong houses, as only three families could be accommodated in every room at the evacuation centers.
In Guinobatan, eight families had to share a room in an evacuation center and practice social distancing.
In Polangui town, hundreds of residents of flood-prone areas were evacuated to Bicol University, Polongui General Comprehensive High School and North Central School. Their temperature was checked before they were allowed into rooms, Polangui Mayor Andy Mariscostes said.
In Calabarzon and Mimaropa regions, disaster officials issued orders for responders to make the evacuation centers “separate” from coronavirus quarantines. —REPORTS FROM JHESSET O. ENANO, TINA G. SANTOS, JULIE M. AURELIO, MARICAR CINCO, MAR S. ARGUELLES, REY ANTHONY OSTRIA, MICHAEL JAUCIAN, JOEY GABIETA, RACHEL ARNAIZ AND AFP
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