x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Anger in aftermath of storm

The Philippines government comes under criticism for being unprepared for the worst storm in Manila for 40 years.

Recovery workers in Tanay Rizal, east of Manila, rush out of a building that is on the verge of collapsing from the flood damage caused by Tropical Storm Ketsana.
Recovery workers in Tanay Rizal, east of Manila, rush out of a building that is on the verge of collapsing from the flood damage caused by Tropical Storm Ketsana.

MANILA // The Philippine government and its emergency services came in for a barrage of criticism yesterday for being caught off guard and unprepared for the worst storm to hit the capital area in more than 40 years. Tropical Storm Ketsana moved further into the South China Sea yesterday, leaving a trail of destruction, death and recrimination.

Joey Salceda, an economic adviser to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president, said the storm underlined the need to modernise the country's weather-forecasting system. "The crux of the problem is failure of warning." Mr Salceda added that the weather bureau has no Doppler radar to forecast the rainfall content of incoming typhoons or weather patterns. "All they have are manual rain gauges that capture data too late ? when rain has already fallen."

The search for more bodies continued and the number of homeless increased, while the government declared large parts of Manila and surrounding provinces disaster areas. As of last night, the death toll stood at 140 and the number of homeless at 500,000 but government officials expect the number of people killed in the flooding to be much higher. Heavy rain began falling over Manila again yesterday as this city of 12 million battled a sea of brown muddy water that covered many areas with the weather bureau warning of more storms.

The storm, which pounded the capital and surrounding provinces on Saturday, dumped 455 millimetres of rain on Manila in 24 hours, roughly the same amount for the whole of September. This was almost double the amount unleashed by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005, although most of the damage there was caused when levees broke, flooding the city. Power, communications and water were cut in many parts of Manila as workmen struggled to try and restore supplies.

Radio phone-in programmes were inundated by angry callers. Some spoke of people still stranded on rooftops without access to food or drinking water for three days. "The government was not prepared for this," one caller said. "I can understand if you are in the provinces, but when you are in the capital sitting on a roof waiting to be rescued, there is no excuse. Where were the helicopters? Where was the army? Basically we had to fend for ourselves and the government plays this up as some sort of Filipino trait. We fend for ourselves because the government can't."

Pete Troilo, the director of Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a political risk consultancy in Manila, said: "It is one of the sad ironies of this country which is so prone to natural disasters that it is never prepared. "When it floods in Manila everyone knows what areas will be affected. Once the floodwaters recede the people will return and rebuild. Most are poor and the areas most affected are slums in low lying areas."

Mr Troilo said the government lacked resources and procedures to cope with major natural disasters and relied heavily on foreign aid. He said poor urban planning, poor roads and drainage only added to the problem. Many people resorted to the internet to help people who were stranded, using such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter for information regarding emergency numbers and shelters. But not every one had the luxury of a laptop, especially the poor who bore the brunt of the storm's fury.

Most of those killed in and around Manila were from slum districts, many of them built on the side of filthy canals. A woman who gave her name only as Tess from Marikina, one of the worst affected areas in the city, lost everything she owned when the floodwaters swept through the shanty she lived in early on Saturday morning. "Where were the emergency people when we needed them?" she asked as she sat in an emergency shelter.

Richard Gordon, a senator who is also head of the Philippine chapter of the Red Cross, said: "We were all totally caught unprepared. "This was supposed to be a small typhoon. The government was caught with its pants down." Another senator, Miriam Santiago, said in a statement that much of the flooding could have been averted if money earmarked for road improvement and drainage over the years had been spent "and not diverted into other areas".

The government defended its position by saying the floods made many areas inaccessible even to heavy lorries and it did not have enough rubber boats. There have been accusations that some of the budget for disaster preparedness and mitigation was diverted for the president's travels abroad. The government yesterday denied the claim. "We're doing our best to get to all those people still trapped by the flash flood," said Anthony Golez, a spokesman for Mrs Arroyo, after a briefing of the national disaster co-ordinating council.

"We're sorry for the delays. We're encountering difficulty in reaching flooded areas." The lack of government rescue vessels prompted San Miguel, the country's biggest food and drinks company, to make a public offer on Sunday to buy up to 50 motorised boats to be used in rescue operations. foreign.desk@thenational.ae