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How the Philippines learned from disaster

September 17, 2018 at 12:59 AM

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Last weekend, two major storms struck half a world apart. Hurricane Florence, which is now a tropical depression, doused the southeastern United States with more than 30 inches of rain, leading to “catastrophic” flooding. Nearly 9,000 miles away, Typhoon Mangkhut — 2018′s strongest storm — battered the Philippines before veering to hit Hong Kong and China. Hundreds are feared dead, many in landslides that buried families alive.

This may seem like a tragic coincidence, but experts say it’s more like the new normal. Climate change exacerbates extreme weather by raising ocean temperatures, which turbocharges storms and amps up rain and flooding. “Typhoons, hurricanes and all tropical storms draw their vast energy from the warmth of the sea,” said Will Steffen, the director of Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, to the Guardian in 2013. “We know sea-surface temperatures are warming pretty much around the planet, so that’s a pretty direct influence of climate change on the nature of the storm.”

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Typhoon Mangkhut brought strong winds and flooding to Hong Kong on Sept. 16, after leaving 64 dead in the northern Philippines. (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

It’s a scary new reality. But in the Philippines, at least, there is a bright side: The government seems to be getting better at responding to natural disasters, and officials have applied the lessons of Typhoon Haiyan, which struck in 2013, to mitigate the effects of Mangkhut.

Haiyan, dubbed a “super typhoon,” was a Category 5 storm with winds of up to 195 mph — the highest speeds ever recorded at the time. The typhoon hit the Philippines at near-peak strength, essentially leveling the city of Tacloban. A tsunami-like storm surge flooded the city in minutes; in some places, the water was 30 feet deep. An ocean freighter was blown inland, crushing several homes and buildings. Winds tore the roofs off government shelters.

Rescuers, paramedics and volunteers search for three missing people buried in a landslide caused by Typhoon Mangkhut. (STR/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Str/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

As the New York Times vividly recounted: “When the sea rose over much of Tacloban, huge waves sent floating cars crashing again and again into the drowned bodies that lined the outside walls of one school. That sent sprays of blood repeatedly across the school’s windows, terrorizing the children sheltering inside.”

The government estimates that at least 6,000 people drowned or went missing. Another 4 million lost their homes.

In the days and weeks after the crisis, survivors struggled to access basic supplies. Gangs of armed looters roamed the streets, and rioting made it nearly impossible for the Red Cross and other aid groups to reach those in need. Airports could not open; the electrical grid was totally demolished.

It took weeks — and the arrival of an American aircraft carrier, which could send supplies and soldiers by helicopter — for calm to be restored.

The horrors of Haiyan shaped how the government rebuilt the city. It placed stronger shelters on high ground and allowed international public-health groups to launch a tetanus vaccine program. The disease had spread quickly after Haiyan, which blew apart wooden homes and scattering boards with rusty nails on nearly every road. The storm also scattered a heavy layer of palm fronds on the ground, masking the disease-carrying objects underneath.

And this time, as news of Mangkhut spread, officials had a much clearer idea of what to do. Authorities began delivering food and clean water ahead of the storm in order to make sure people could access lifesaving goods even if roads and airports were closed. Police officers and soldiers prepared to head to storm-ravaged areas quickly to maintain order and help with rescue efforts. Thousands were evacuated late last week, before Mangkhut hit.

The result of these efforts is that Mangkhut, a storm nearly as powerful as Haiyan, has produced many fewer fatalities. There were 64 confirmed deaths in the Philippines at the time of writing, a number “far lower than officials had feared in the days before the storm made landfall early Saturday on the Philippines’ largest and most populous island,” the New York Times reported. The paper did caution that “it could be days or weeks before the storm’s true human toll is known."

Men use a basin to cross a flooded street in the aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut. (AFP Contributor#AFP)

Still, the organized response is a rare bit of good climate-change news for the Philippines. A recent survey from HSBC Bank’s climate-research arm said the country is more vulnerable to climate change than nearly anywhere else in the world. The Philippines — a collection of more than 7,000 islands — is hit by an average of 20 cyclones a year. If current climate trends continue, USAID predicts that rising temperatures will decimate the country’s agricultural base, causing water shortages, population displacement and an increased spread of diseases.

So it’s not surprising that the Philippines takes the threat of climate change seriously. The government invests 2 percent of the national budget in climate-change adaptation and risk reduction. It has pledged to cut its carbon emissions 70 percent by 2030, one of the most ambitious targets in the world.

But to stave off even more disaster, an international response is necessary. Years ago, scientists warned that if global temperatures rose more than 2 degrees Celsius, there would be massive displacement because of rising seas, extreme food and water shortages and a more hostile and violent world. Now, even if every country cuts its carbon emissions in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement, experts say we’ll still see temperatures rise by at least 3 degrees.

“Even if countries fulfill their pledges, emissions will keep rising globally through 2030, and without any sign of stopping,” Columbia University economist Scott Barrett told PBS. “And there’s no way you can meet any temperature target as long as emissions keep rising. The only way you can stabilize the climate is if global emissions head toward zero.”

In other words: In a world with unchecked warming, disaster preparedness will get vulnerable countries like the Philippines only so far.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

Amanda Erickson writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Previously, she worked as an editor for Outlook and PostEverything.

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