Typhoon forces risky evacuations in virus-hit Philippines

Manila (AFP) –


A powerful typhoon hit the central Philippines Thursday, forcing a complicated and risky evacuation for tens of thousands of people, many of them heading to cramped shelters without proper safety gear to guard against the coronavirus.

Typhoon Vongfong sheared roofs from houses, uprooted coconut trees and dumped heavy rain as it made landfall on the island of Samar, sending locals to emergency shelters.

Because of the twin threat of the storm and the virus, evacuation centres in the central Philippines said they will only accept half their capacity and evacuees will have to wear facemasks.

Hundreds of thousands live in coastal areas and flimsy homes near where the storm blasted ashore, and tens of millions more on the storm's forecast path that runs near the capital Manila.

"We are trapped in a nightmare situation where we face the threat of the storm as well as COVID," evacuee Mary Ann Encinares said at a shelter, where she and her children had fashioned masks out of handkerchiefs and rubber bands.

The surge of people and limited space mean authorities have asked big churches in the area to accept people fleeing the typhoon, which is the first of the season.

"We will be overwhelmed so we're expanding our evacuation to include churches," said Cedric Daep, disaster chief in central Albay province.

Some towns had also converted their evacuation centres into sites to deal with coronavirus patients, forcing them to consider using schools shuttered by the pandemic.

"The problem there is how do you address the issue of social distancing inside the classrooms?," asked Ben Evardone, governor of the central province Eastern Samar.

- Double disasters -

Vongfong is packing gusts up to 190 kilometres (120 miles) an hour as well as drenching rains that could cause flooding and landslides, the national weather agency said.

Areas in the typhoon's path are under varying levels of virus quarantine, yet many people are staying at home to avoid infection.

The Philippines has reported 790 deaths and 11,876 cases of the virus, though the number is believed to be higher due to limited testing.

It is not unheard of for disasters to overlap in the Philippines, and some 22,000 people were evacuated from the slopes of the active Mayon volcano ahead of the typhoon's arrival.

Heavy rains in the past have sent landslides of debris cascading down the volcano and onto the communities below, burying and killing those in the way.

Typhoons are a dangerous and disruptive part of life in the Philippine archipelago, which gets hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons each year.

The storms put millions of people in disaster-prone areas in a state of constant poverty and rebuilding.

Typhoon Kammuri, which hit the Philippines in early December, damaged or destroyed 484,000 houses and caused more than a million people to flee, according to the social welfare department.

A July 2019 study by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank said the most frequent storms lop one percent off the Philippine economy, with the stronger ones cutting economic output by nearly three percent.

The country's deadliest cyclone on record was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.