Today, Typhoon Hagupit (known locally as Ruby) has been making itself known in Manila. The winds and rain that swirl around the edge of the storm arrived early and are expected to strengthen significantly overnight. Walking to the office this morning, I braced myself against both, while an empty Starbucks cup hurtled down the street towards me.
At UNICEF’s 9am emergency meeting, the news was generally good. The typhoon has weakened as it continues to sweep slowly across the Philippines. At least three people have been killed since the storm made landfall (some reports now say 21), including a boy in Samar who was hit by a falling tree, but generally the impact was not as severe as we had feared.
Having learned the lessons of Typhoon Haiyan last year, the preparations, evacuation and humanitarian response for this typhoon have all been exemplary. Still, around a million people have taken refuge in evacuation centres, and with the typhoon passing over remote areas, the true impact may not become known for several days.
Sunshine in Tacloban
We spoke by phone to Maulid Warfa, head of UNICEF’s field office in Tacloban. “It’s a warm and sunny day today in Tacloban,” he told us. “People are coming out and the shops are starting to open. The electricity is still down and the airport is closed but there have been zero casualties in Tacloban – no deaths and no injuries”
“All the evacuation centres will be cleared today,” Maulid continued. “Those people who can’t go home will move to the Astrodome. Some of the temporary bunkhouses have been damaged so we need to repair those, including fixing broken windows and restoring water. But the tent city is gone. Literally gone – the tents were blown away and we’ll never see them again.”
Maulid confirmed that UNICEF had started sending pre-positioned supplies from Tacloban to areas further north that had been harder hit by the typhoon. “Yesterday we sent two trucks to Dolores and Ores,” he said. “We sent another one this morning to Borangan closer to the affected area, with instructions to wait there until we know where it’s needed.
“The trucks are carrying water and hygiene kits, water purification units, oral rehydration salts, 6000-litre water tanks and power generators,” he added.
For UNICEF in Tacloban, the remaining issues in the coming days are rebuilding homes and psychosocial support for children. “We’ve met young children for whom this typhoon has brought back traumatic memories from Typhoon Haiyan last year,” Maulid explained. “We’ll be meeting with the government and partners shortly to see what we can do to help them.”
Stormy weather in Manila
Although Tacloban was clearly through the worst, Manila was gearing up for a seriously stormy night, with the typhoon due to pass to the south of the city. In the afternoon, I went with Romella from UNICEF Philippines to visit the local government in Quezon City (part of Metro Manila) and see the final stage of preparations.
At Quezon City Hall, we met City Administrator Aldrin Cuna, who was in the control room with colleagues from each government department. “We’ve been waiting for Ruby to arrive tonight,” he said with a smile. “We deployed most of our boats and vehicles to flood prone areas on Saturday but we have a few left here and emergency staff on standby to go out wherever needed.”
I asked Aldrin what the City Government was doing for at-risk communities. “We’ve set up evacuation centres for people living in flood-prone areas near the river,” he replied. “These are mainly slum districts. The barangay councils are already going round asking people to move to the evacuation centres voluntarily. If it gets really bad, we may need to do a forced evacuation. Sometimes people don’t want to leave their homes and possessions, but their lives are more valuable.”
As we left, we saw emergency workers catching a few hours sleep on mats, chairs and even in stairwells. “They need to save their strength for tonight,” Aldrin said.
From City Hall, we drove to Barangay Bagong Silangan, where an evacuation centre had been set up in a covered court on the hillside above a flood plain. It was already starting to fill up with women and children who had arrived early with a few possessions to claiming a space on the mats in the centre of the court. Barangay staff were starting to prepare food for evacuees and the Health Department had set up a small clinic to do check-ups
I spoke to 31-year-old Elna Cirilo, who had arrived with her two children Nicole, 6, and Cyrus, 5. She was eight months pregnant with her third child. “We came here to get away from danger and to be secure,” Elna said. “My husband stayed behind to guard the house, but if the flood waters rise he’ll come and join us here.”
Elna and her husband grow and sell vegetables for a living, earning around 100 pesos a day ($2.25 USD). They don’t pay rent on their slum home, but they still struggle to get by and sometimes can’t afford to send their children to school. “Our house has already flooded three times before,” Elna said. “I’m very worried but there’s nothing I can do.”
Nicole was too shy to talk to us, but Cyrus was willing to whisper a few answers to my questions into Romello’s ear. “I’m doing OK,” he said. “I’m afraid of the storm but I’m happy that my friends are here and we’ll have something to eat.”
As we left the evacuation centre just after 5pm, a barangay worker was updating information on a whiteboard. This showed that there were now 77 families and 370 individuals in the evacuation centre. Outside, it was getting dark and the rain was increasingly heavy. People walked down the road under umbrellas, carrying their valuables and heading for the evacuation centre.
I caught a taxi back to my hotel in Makati, and settled in for my own long and possibly sleepless night. After writing this blog, I took a final look outside at 9pm. The rain was hammering down onto deserted city streets and the buildings opposite had disappeared into the mist. I felt lucky at least to have a bed for the night – more than the evacuees and emergency workers.
Hopefully, like in Tacloban, the sun will come back out in Manila tomorrow.
Andy Brown is Regional Communication Specialist at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.
This post originally appeared on the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific blog.