Every few years, a typhoon hits the Philippines late in the year and ruins the Christmas holidays for the communities along its path.
But lately, the storms have been getting much stronger, larger, and their arrival more unpredictable. Late last week, super typhoon Rai caught the country by surprise as it intensified into a rampaging hulk in a matter of hours.
Rai barreled through the Philippines from Thursday all through Saturday, and the extent of its devastation is still unfolding. The death toll is rising, with the national police counting at least 375 fatalities so far. Scores remain missing.
“We knew its wind speed would reach 270 kph, but apparently it reached over 300 kph. That’s as fast as a bullet train. No wonder it flattened so much in its path,” Gregg Yan, founder and director of the environment NGO Best Alternatives, told VICE World News.
“But it’s only our 15th storm this year, which is strange,” he added. The Philippines usually counts its 20th typhoon for the year by December. “That’s really something to look at. Climate change makes weather patterns unpredictable,” Yan said.
Although systems were in place and Filipinos were warned about the approaching typhoon days in advance, it only escalated into a Category-5 storm—a super typhoon—on Thursday morning, mere hours before it was expected to hit land.
“This is one of the most powerful typhoons to ever hit the southern Philippines. It has torn houses to pieces, it’s dumping torrential rain, and severely flooding cities and towns,” Richard Gordon, senator and chairman of Philippine Red Cross, told reporters as Rai was battering the country. “This typhoon is a terrible surprise for the festive season.”
But these scenes are regular fare for Filipinos already used to seeing some 20 typhoons each year. The Philippines is one of the most storm-exposed countries in the world. What’s appalling is that the devastation covers two-thirds of the country, caused by a typhoon that transmogrified into a total destroyer overnight.
When the clouds lifted, the full horror started to become apparent: Towns and even cities were submerged in floods, entire communities were obliterated, and people emerging from evacuation shelters were walking around dazed, disbelieving the misfortune that had just hit them.
Super typhoon Rai battered the resort island of Siargao in the southern Philippines. Photo: Office of the Vice President via AP
“This typhoon didn’t seem so onerous at the start. Our monitoring only forecasted moderate rainfall,” Virginia Benosa-Llorin, senior climate justice campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines, told VICE World News. “Then, all of a sudden, it escalated, became very intense and very damaging.”
With devastated areas cut off from electricity and communication lines, and roads blocked by debris, it took responders some time to be able to assess the extent of super typhoon Rai’s impact. Only a handful of deaths were reported in the immediate aftermath—a relief, given the magnitude of the disaster. But as more places were reached and came online again, reports of people missing, bodies found, and hamlets buried in landslides started to trickle in.
A coastal village in Surigao del Norte province, Philippines, after super typhoon Rai. Photo: Philippine Coast Guard via AP
Some 300,000 people evacuated their homes, but a total 700,000—by conservative estimates—were severely affected. The super typhoon pummeled the country’s poorer regions that are home to some 16 million people. Typhoons normally wreak havoc in rural areas where homes are made of wood and other light materials, but Rai did not spare urban areas, where even concrete megaliths like malls and hospitals saw severe damage. Now, people are lining up by the kilometer for drinking water and other necessities, because the storm destroyed critical infrastructure, and trucks carrying goods couldn’t get past roadblocks.
Filipinos know the drill, and both government and private organizations have stockpiles of aid items at the ready for times like this. But the devastation is just too widespread this time.
“Before, whenever we monitored typhoons, we’d know where they would hit, and we could focus and centralize our response resources to that area. But now, we find severe devastation even in areas far from the eye of the typhoon,” Benosa-Llorin said. “In terms of our response, it’s much harder because the area we need to cover has gotten much larger.”
“This is really a red signal for all of us that the climate crisis is upon us now. It’s not a future problem. What we need to do is to prevent the potential further damage,” she added.
Initial estimates put damage to agriculture—the main livelihood of rural Filipinos—at $3 million. The figure may rise as the damage assessment continues. Advocates worry for farmers whose crops were destroyed, and for the millions of poor Filipinos who have barely recovered from previous calamities.
Even sturdier structures were severely damaged by super typhoon Rai, such as this one in Surigao del Norte province, Philippines. Photo: Philippine Coast Guard via AP
“We’re like a fighter who just keeps getting knocked down over and over,” Yan said, noting that the pandemic put the Philippines at an even worse disadvantage in facing super typhoon Rai. “In a third world country with limited resources like the Philippines, every little million pesos counts in improving our infrastructure and the lives of our people, but then we’re needing to spend millions and billions and trillions of pesos just trying to recover from calamities.”
What makes the situation more unfair, Yan added, is the fact that the Philippines is a very small contributor to climate change, yet it is among the worst sufferers of its effects. The Philippines’ annual carbon emission per capita, 1.2 metric tons, is a fraction of the United States’ 15.52 or China’s 7.38.
“Come on, get your act together, COP,” Yan said. “This isn’t going to end. How many more times are Filipinos going to suffer?”
And it’s not just Filipinos—it’s every person living in countries vulnerable to climate change. Malaysia, for instance, saw massive floods at the same time Rai was battering the Philippines. There was no tropical cyclone in Malaysia, just climate change and environmental degradation exacerbating the effects of severe weather.
“The Malaysians are converting so much of their legit primary forests into palm oil plantations at a crazy rate. It’s one of the most insane rates in the whole world. That’s contributing greatly to all of this, to flooding, to drought,” Yan said.
Environmental advocates say it’s too late to still be asking whether these freak storms are caused by climate change, and whether cutting carbon emissions really would help stop, if not reverse, this deadly trend.
“We are in uncharted territory, and scientifically, we can’t predict what would happen if we stopped all the emissions now,” Yan said. “But as an environmentalist and advocate, I’m willing to bet everything I have, even the clothes on my back, that if we stop the emissions as soon as possible, or at least replace them with emissions from renewable sources, then the world will be a safer place for everyone.”
Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.