A Typhoon Spared the Philippine Capital. Will Manila Be So Lucky Next Time?

BANGKOK – The Philippines were prepared for the worst. When Typhoon Goni landed in the disaster-stricken nation on Sunday morning with sustained winds of 135 miles per hour, it was the strongest storm to hit the Southeast Asian nation in years.

Manila, the low-lying, overcrowded capital, appeared to be right in the way of the typhoon. Approximately 1.5 million families in the city live near railroad tracks, garbage dumps, and smelly waterways, whose weak huts and shantytowns are defenseless against any gust of wind and storm surge.

But by the end of the day, Goni, locally known as Rolly, appeared to have largely bypassed the capital with no deaths reported there. According to the regional civil protection office, at least 10 people died as a result of the typhoon in the Bicol region, southeast of the capital. Rivers overflowed, branches flew, and streams of wet concrete-like mud poured down the slopes of a volcano.

“Thank goodness we were largely spared,” said Francisco Domagoso, Manila’s mayor. “But we are one with the people in the Bicol region who carried the brunt of the storm.”

Late on Sunday evening, the national weather agency announced that Goni had found its way via Luzon, the most populous island in the Philippines, and would weaken to a tropical storm within 24 hours.

The Philippines may have had luck with Goni, the 18th typhoon to hit the country this year. But it remains heavily exposed to a wide variety of natural disasters.

The country lies on the so-called ring of fire, a seismically active swath that surrounds the Pacific and is plagued by earthquakes and volcanoes. Typhoons regularly hit the Philippine archipelago, which is home to more than 100 million people. Fatal 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 earth, scientists say.

As sea surface temperatures rise, the country is exposed to both larger and more frequent tropical storms due to the Philippines’ location in warm ocean waters. Residents of densely populated slums are particularly at risk. This also applies to miners and farmers who dig up and cultivate mountainous earth, creating slippery, muddy conditions under which streams of earth can bury people alive.

Mass deforestation, including the destruction of mangroves along the coast, has removed natural barriers to wind and water.

According to the Asian Development Bank, more than 23,000 people died from natural hazards in the Philippines from 1997 to 2016 when the warming planet caused stronger storms.

“Climate change is a big international idea, but we are facing it locally and we do not have enough progressive vision,” said Dakila Kim P. Yee, a sociologist at Visayas Tacloban College, University of the Philippines

Still, the country has developed a resilient national character as it faces one disaster after another, Yee said.

After Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical storms of all time, struck the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,300 people, local governments began devising better evacuation plans. This catastrophic storm seriously destroyed or damaged more than four million homes, and subsequent looting ravaged the university city of Tacloban.

Almost 1 million people were evacuated before Goni landed on Sunday.

Such mass efforts, even when some typhoon evacuation centers were being used to house coronavirus patients, certainly saved lives. But the building damage Goni has sustained in the Bicol region, with roofs sheared from buildings and streams of water uprooting entire homes, will be more evident when day breaks on Monday and the displaced return to their homes.

ABS-CBN, a popular news network that offered important free television and radio broadcasts, was 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 faced emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic. Without ABS-CBN’s broadcasts, some of Goni’s most vulnerable people had no access to critical information.

In Albay province, one of the hardest hit areas in Bicol, AJ Miraflor, a resident, said the typhoon was “powerful and the winds howled”.

On social media, Mr. Miraflor posted dramatic images of people stranded on their rooftops as floods rushed through the village of Cagsawa. Another typhoon in 2006 that killed 2,000 people was even worse, Miraflor said, recalling that Goni is not an isolated incident.

Last week, 22 people were killed when Typhoon Molave ​​paved a route through the same region that Goni passed.

If Goni had kept his ferocity and taken a different route, the damage would have been difficult to fathom. Up to 20 million people could be affected, said Ricardo Jalad, head of the national disaster agency.

Before the storm system was downgraded in intensity, the national weather authority had warned of a “complete roof failure in many residential and industrial buildings” and “total damage to banana plantations”. All signs and billboards in the affected areas threatened to be blown up and electricity and telecommunications services would be “severely disrupted,” the agency said.

Such warnings are reserved now when – not when – the next major storm hits the Philippines. The national weather agency is already warning that another tropical storm, Atsani, will soon follow in Goni’s footsteps.

Hannah Beech reported from Bangkok and Jason Gutierrez from Manila.