Philippines’ natural disaster risks shift, along with experts

As the storm season approaches, officials in the Philippines are turning to seasoned storm emergency responders to help prepare communities that have historically been spared devastation but that now find themselves in harm’s way.

When Typhoon Bopha struck the southern Philippine island of Mindanao last December, it unleashed an unprecedented scale of devastation on the island’s northern and eastern coasts, particularly in farming regions once thought to be safe from such deadly weather events.

Whipping up winds of up to 250km an hour, the typhoon - known locally as Pablo - was the strongest to have hit the southern region in nearly a century, and it was the deadliest storm in the world that year.

One of the first responders was a disaster relief team deployed from the eastern Albay Province, a region once among the country’s most disaster-prone.

Cedric Daep, who heads the Office of Civil Defence in Albay, sent 72 members to respond to the humanitarian needs of tens of thousands of people displaced by typhoon-triggered landslides and floods.

"It caught practically all local government units and disaster response groups by surprise," Daep told IRIN. "They had no experience in such things, and were slow to react in the onset of sudden emergency."

The typhoon affected over six million people, directly displacing about one million. More than 2,000 were either confirmed dead or are still reported missing. The storm also destroyed some 230,000 homes, as well as roads, telecommunications, bridges and community health centres, effectively cutting off many remote communities.

Bringing in experts

Daep said the national government realized at the onset it had to fly in outside experts, preferably those from communities with a long history of tackling such disasters.

"By force of necessity, we became experts at disaster management, so we were sent to help out," Daep said.

"When we arrived, we immediately set up technical support, as well prioritized bringing in supplies, food and water. Camp management was also strengthened - there was total chaos. None of the local officials were functioning; they were shell-shocked."

Over the past two decades, Albay, in the eastern Bicol region, was the gateway for powerful typhoons blowing from the Pacific. It has seen some of the country’s most violent storms, as well as periodic eruptions of Mayon Volcano.

Years of disasters honed residents’ survival skills, and the province is considered a leader in instituting early warning systems, as well as preventive evacuations.

It is listed by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction as one of 29 "role model cities" that exemplify disaster risk reduction (DRR).

However, over the past two years, Bicol has been relatively unscathed. Changing weather patterns have caused the most recent typhoons to move south, hitting Mindanao or the capital, Manila.

Adapting to weather changes

Loren Legarda, chair of the senate’s environment and climate change committee, said part of the government's climate change adaptation strategy is learning to divert resources to help less disaster-experienced communities.

"We have to take action now [rather] than wait until it’s too late," Legarda told IRIN. "Our disaster risk reduction mechanism should be pro-active, [to] ensure communities are disaster-proof by making them more resilient."

"The times have changed, so have the weather patterns," she said.

Legarda said other communities must also learn from Daep's expertise and strive to follow the models used in Albay.

"Communities that have yet to put up their own plans must begin making up short-term DRR programmes, expected by the time the storm season begins in June, as well as a long-term programme that will make them resilient," she said.

In the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha, the government has intensified its disaster awareness campaign by distributing geo-hazard maps in newly devastated areas, as well as conducting rapid emergency management trainings and briefings for local officials.