Philippines braces for Christmas storm, offers roasted pigs

By , on December 25, 2016


Photo: DOST_Pagaasa
Photo: DOST-Pagasa/Facebook

MANILA, Philippines—A powerful typhoon menacingly blew closer to the eastern Philippines on Christmas Day as officials struggled to divert people’s attention from family celebrations and travel. A provincial governor offered roasted pigs to entice villagers to move to emergency shelters.

Typhoon Nock-Ten packed maximum sustained winds of 185 kilometres (114 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 255 kph (158 mph), and was expected to smash into the island province of Catanduanes on Sunday night.

It’s then forecast to blow westward across the southern portion of the main island of Luzon and pass close to the capital, Manila, on Monday, before exiting over the South China Sea. Nock-Ten may weaken after making landfall and hitting the Sierra Madre mountain range in southern Luzon.

Heavy rainfall, destructive winds and battering waves were threatening heavily populated rural and urban regions, where the Philippine weather agency raised typhoon warnings, stranding thousands of people in ports as airlines cancelled flights and ferries were prevented from sailing. Officials warned of storm surges in coastal villages, flash floods and landslides, and asked villagers to evacuate to safer grounds.

Christmas is the biggest holiday in the Philippines, which has Asia’s largest Roman Catholic population, making it difficult for officials to get people’s attention to heed the warnings. With many refusing to leave high-risk communities, some officials said they decided to carry out forced evacuations.

In the past 65 years, seven typhoons have struck the Philippines on Christmas Day, according to the government’s weather agency.

Gov. Miguel Villafuerte of Camarines Sur province, which is in the typhoon’s forecast path, offered roast pigs, a popular Christmas delicacy locally called “lechon,” in evacuation centres to entice villagers to move to emergency shelters.

“I know it’s Christmas … but this is a legit typhoon,” Villafuerte tweeted on Christmas Eve. “Please evacuate, we’ll be having lechon at evacuation centres.”

Camarines Sur officials targeted about 50,000 families — some 250,000 people — for evacuation by Saturday night, but the number of those who responded was initially far below expectations.

In Catanduanes province, Vice Gov. Shirley Abundo said she had ordered a forced evacuation of villagers, saying some “are really hard-headed, they don’t want to leave their houses because it’s Christmas.”

“We need to do this by force, we need to evacuate them now,” she told ABS-CBN television.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development, which helps oversee government response during disasters, said only about 4,200 people were reported to have moved to six evacuation centres by Sunday morning in the Bicol region, which includes Camarines Sur.

“It’s difficult to force celebrations when our lives will be put at risk. Please prioritize safety and take heed of warnings by local government units,” welfare official Felino Castro told The Associated Press by phone.

Food, water and other emergency supplies had been pre-positioned in areas expected to be lashed by the typhoon, Castro said. His department was to activate an emergency cluster comprising the military, police, coast guard and other agencies Sunday to oversee disaster-response plans.

In the farming town of Guinobatan in Albay province, which is near Nock-Ten’s path, more than 17,600 villagers moved to evacuation shelters without hesitation because of fear of a repeat of a typhoon that unleashed smouldering mudflows from nearby Mayon Volcano that left hundreds dead several years ago, Guinobatan Mayor Ann Ongjoco said by phone.

Josefina Nao, who evacuated to a Guinobatan school with her six children, grandchildren and siblings, said that Sunday was one of her bleakest Christmas holidays, but that poor people like her did not have much choice. She said it was tough to replicate Christmas away from home, adding that town officials tried to cheer evacuees by distributing holiday food such as spaghetti.

“We live in a flood-prone community near a river where many had been swept to their deaths by floodwaters during typhoons,” the 60-year-old Nao said by phone from a classroom-turned-storm shelter without Christmas lights or decorations. “I wish it was a merrier Christmas, but this is our best option because we’ll all be safe together.”

About 20 typhoons and storms, mostly from the Pacific, lash the Philippines each year, making the poor country of more than 100 million people one of the most disaster-prone in the world.

In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines with ferocious power, leaving more than 7,300 people dead or missing and displacing more than 5 million after levelling entire villages despite days of dire warnings by government officials.