Evacuation effort credited with minimizing typhoon casualties in Philippines

and Contact Reporter
Emergency crews are still trying to reach some Philippine villages in areas hit hard by Typhoon Hagiput

Government officials and aid workers on Tuesday credited a major evacuation effort for helping to avert more severe casualties as Typhoon Hagupit, now downgraded to a tropical storm, barreled through the Philippines, collapsing houses, uprooting trees and triggering landslides and flash floods.

Emergency crews were still trying to reach some villages and the damage had not been fully tallied as the storm headed out to sea after a plodding northwest journey across the Pacific Ocean archipelago. But government officials estimated the cost to agriculture alone was more than $23 million.

The Philippine Red Cross said it had received reports of 36 deaths, but had confirmed only 22 of them.

The government’s death toll stood at eight, including those of a 2-month-old girl hit by a falling tree, a 14-year-old boy who was electrocuted and a 20-year-old man caught in a landslide. Most of the rest drowned and at least 151 people were injured, according to the national disaster response agency.

The toll could have been much worse, officials said. More than 7,300 people were killed or went missing when Typhoon Haiyan struck just over a year ago.

One of the reasons that Haiyan was so deadly is because people did not expect the tsunami-like storm surges unleashed by one of the most powerful typhoons on record. Used to more mild storms, which hit every year, many did not heed government calls to leave their homes.

This time, they did not hesitate to go, said Edward Olney, country director for the international aid group Save the Children.

Nearly 1.7 million people sought refuge in schools, churches and other evacuation centers during the latest storm, according to government figures.

Olney also noted the positive effect of pre-positioning relief supplies and distributing satellite phones, so communities didn't lose contact when power and cellphone service failed.

Hagupit, which is known in the Philippines as Ruby, made landfall on the eastern island of Samar on Saturday night, near where Haiyan first struck.

Hours before, strong winds knocked out the power supply, leaving many people to wait out the storm in the dark, said Ben P. Evardone, congressman for the Eastern Samar province. The howling wind ripped roofs from houses and sent debris flying, said Evardone, who sheltered in an evacuation center.

"The center was packed with people -- many had to stand," he said. "You could see fear on their faces. People were praying constantly, especially the old ones."

Most homes on the island are built of flimsy materials and tens of thousands of them were damaged or destroyed, he said.  

The storm also ripped up coconut trees by the roots and flooded rice plantations, destroying the livelihoods of countless residents.

"A coconut tree’s gestation period is seven years. What will they do until then?" Evardone asked. "This will be the big challenge for government. Emergency employment will be needed."

Olney said the storm hit hardest in areas that were largely spared last year, "so now the whole province has a problem."

"It’s tragic," he said.

Although Hagupit was at one point classified as a super typhoon, it did not strike with the same force as Haiyan. Areas such as Tacloban, the central city left in ruins last year, escaped with minimal damage and no loss of life.  But the newly reconstructed airport lost its roof, and the city is expected to be without electricity for a week.

Hagupit also brought heavy rain and strong winds to the capital, Manila, causing some flooding but little damage to housing. 

Francis Tolentino, chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority, said government officials received significant help from the private sector as they prepared for the storm.

"When I asked the operators of malls to close early so employees and those hanging around the malls could get home safely, the response was positive," he said. "One operator even said cars could stay for free in the multi-level parking lot, in case it was not safe to drive."

Schools and government offices, which closed as a precaution, were expected to reopen Wednesday.

"The Christmas lanterns will be back on the major streets to show that the holiday is around the corner and we are back to normalcy," Tolentino said.

Special correspondent De Leon reported from Manila and Times staff writer Zavis from Los Angeles.

For more international news, follow @alexzavis on Twitter

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