Typoon Hagupit: Hundreds of thousands flee as superstorm hits the Philippines

A year after being devastated by Haiyan, the eastern Philippines faces a second storm

A year after the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan, more than 650,000 people have fled low-lying areas of eastern Philippines as a second superstorm hit the country, felling trees and cutting off electricity supplies.

Despite being downgraded from the highest storm rating shortly before making landfall, Typhoon Hagupit – which measures 370 miles across and is peaking at gusts of 130mph – still caused panic among people who feared a repeat of the destruction and loss of life of 2013. The storm was headed for the city of Tacloban, which is rebuilding itself after thousands were killed there in November 2013.

“Everybody is in fear because of what happened during [Haiyan],” said Ben Evardone, political representative of the Eastern Samar province. “We can already feel the wrath of the typhoon. Everybody is praying.”

Learning the lessons of Typhoon Haiyan, when many Filipinos accused the government of failing to give adequate warning, a command centre for rescue and relief operations has been set up in Borongan and the Philippines is carrying out of its largest ever peacetime evacuations.

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Hundreds of residents take shelter inside the provincial capitol of Surigao city close to central Philippines on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014

Residents were moved to higher ground and into solid buildings such as churches and schools. Social media reports suggested that evacuation centres were filling up fast, and there were claims some had been turned away and forced to find shelter elsewhere.

President Benigno Aquino, who oversaw the country’s response with disaster agency leaders, ordered food supplies to be sent to affected areas and the deployment of armed troops and police to prevent looting in the storm’s aftermath.

Due to the storm’s huge width, 50 million people – half the nation’s population – are living in vulnerable areas. Many are taking steps to help themselves, with citizens reported to be stocking up on fuel, food and building materials to protect their homes and board up business premises. After Haiyan, 475,000 people are still living in makeshift housing.

Survivor Jojo Moro, 42, a businessman who lost his wife, daughter and mother in last year’s typhoon, said he had stocked up on sardines, instant noodles, eggs and water in preparation. “I’m scared,” he said. “I’m praying to God not to let another disaster strike us again. We haven’t recovered from the first.”

Gemma Parkin, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, said the concern was that families hit hardest in November 2013 would most likely suffer. “If Tacloban gets hit again then those families are going to be starting from scratch again, with nothing,” she warned.

Mimi Maitem, communications officer for Action Against Hunger, said the situation was better than 2014 due to the lessons learn in the last typhoon. However, the present storm would be one of the first tests of new safety procedures.

“We have just mobilised our teams, and are also dealing with intervention to increase risk awareness in the communities,” she said. “The government has forced evacuations, and secured some people on higher ground, so there isn’t a repeat of the impact of Typhoon Haiyan and what happened before. The government and the people are aware of the situation – and had to make sure the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan wouldn’t happen again.”

Oxfam said it anticipated the storm would be slower than last year’s onslaught but may linger, increasing the chance of flooding and landslides. Domestic flights have been cancelled and ferry crossings suspended, stranding thousands of people.

After the initial disaster relief effort, attempts to rebuild typhoon-hit areas of the Philippines after last November’s storm focused on providing shelter and cash grants to help rebuild the local economy. Many people in rural areas relied on coconut farming, but as coconut trees take seven years to grow, aid agencies taught the skills to grow other vegetables that could provide an immediate income. However, the rebuilding work is expected to last years, and now there is concern that the vegetables planted are also at risk.

The path of the storm is unpredictable, with US agencies stating it could veer north-west past the southern edge of the capital, Manila, home to more than 12 million people, and the Philippine agency projecting a more southerly path.

The confusion meant everybody “should prepare for the worst”, regional disaster response director Blanche Gobenciong told AP. “We have a zero-casualty target. Just one loss of life will sadden us all and make us wonder what went wrong.”

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