Urduja is not exactly what we expected. What was supposed to be an average storm of considerable strength became the litmus test for government response and disaster risk reduction years after the state had initiated risk-mitigation and disaster preparedness education in regions severely affected by supertyphoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan).
What we expected was for the rain to pour and winds to howl, we thought work would be suspended for a day or two and some roads impassable due to slight debris pile up. We would never have thought the storm would cause evacuation-efforts spanning three regions or paralyzed the economy of close to three provinces in Eastern Visayas.
Urduja: The extent
Today, Eastern Samar, Northern Samar and Biliran are all in a state of calamity after tropical storm Urduja had directly passed over the three provinces. At the onset, government preparations included early warning of coastal communities but was not nearly enough for the people to internalize just how destructive government underestimation of impending storms would be.
Eastern Samar is one of the hardest hit in the country with over 55 barangays in 6 municipalities with documented cases of severe flooding and evacuation. These municipalities include Quinapondan, Arteche, Oras, Dolores, Can-avid and Jipapad. In barangay Tawagan, Arteche more than 800 families had already been adversely effected by Urduja even before the storm made landfall. Also, there are more municipalities like Llorente and Maslog raising a red-flag over severe flooding in their area. San Policarpo, the municipality where Urduja made landfall, was also hard-hit with scattered reports of flooding and evacuation. Non-stop rain threatening the integrity of upland soil has caused landslides in parts of the province displacing more than 95,000 people in the entire region, of the 95,000 only 38,000 have been relocated into evacuation centers while 32,000 of these belong to Eastern Samar. Meanwhile, 2808 documented cases of evacuation has been recorded in Western Samar. With several highways being blocked off by debris, it is difficult for public transportation to reach either of the provinces.
In Biliran, the smallest of the six provinces in Eastern Visayas, massive destruction was wrought even after the storm made its second landfall in San Jose de Buan, Western Samar. Gasoline is reportedly unavailable throughout the entire island prompting a rise in prices amid a state of calamity; the main bridge connecting Biliran to the Leyte mainland would have made transportation in and out of the province virtually impossible if not for alternative routes being opened up but takes significantly more time to traverse. The energy and transportation crisis in Biliran is persisting even to this day.
Effect on agriculture
Damage assessments to the agriculture sector also needs to be undertaken especially in Northern Samar after strong winds snapped coconut trees, uprooted abaca shrubs and flood waters failed to recede from rice paddies throughout the province. The adjacent towns of Catubig, Las Navas and Pambujan experienced non-stop rain for four days while their provincial center, Catarman is also flooded. Similar assessments need to be made in other parts of the region while more than half of its population rely largely in agriculture as a source of livelihood. As of today, over 2,850 individuals, mostly farmers, have all sought refuge in schools and evacuation centers.
Masbate, Legazpi, Capiz and the Southern Tagalog have all reported cases of evacuations indicating strong rainfall in their areas as well.
Have we learned anything?
The Urduja experience opens up this question: Haven’t we learned from Yolanda?
By now, shouldn’t our government have gained a sufficient level of appreciation over the urgency in saving lives by implementing disaster-related policies that actually work? Instead of building evacuation centers in non-flooding zones, the Tacloban City Government opened up the Tacloban City Astrodome to more than 500 evacuees. The Astrodome is an iconic figure in post-Yolanda narratives for how its proximity to the Cancabato bay endangered the lives of people seeking refuge in it after the bay waters rushed into its multiple entry points, flooding the structure from the inside.
We’ve confirmed that Duterte’s rehabilitation policy has remained ineffective, underscoring the fact that it continues to tread along failed policy directions and programs set by previous administrations. Furthermore in 2016, he ordered the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to fast track land conversion permits so that agri-based properties can be transformed into sites for permanent housing. Unwittingly relocating thousands upon thousands of disaster victims on top of former rice fields where flooding is inevitable. He also ordered the National Housing Authority to hasten the construction of housing units for Yolanda victims, but the reported substandard construction in key areas like Balangiga, Eastern Samar and the northern barangays in Tacloban has taken its toll on the safety of victims who thought they would find security in their new ‘’concrete’’ homes. Damages to the housing units validate reports of cross-cutting in the materials used for building the units.
With all these reports, it is alarming to note we haven’t really walked an extra mile in setting an example for the world after our experience with Yolanda.
It is an inconvenient truth, a reality, that we haven’t leaped beyond the backwardness of our disaster-preparedness and calamity-response. The greatest barometer, after all, would be the lives and properties lost during Urduja and the life of people who survived the storm.#
Joshua Musico Sagdullas
Bayan Eastern Visayas
Tacloban City, Philippines