Mangkhut puts Duterte in the eye of the storm
Super typhoon caused less death and devastation than anticipated but the government's response to the aftermath will still be closely watched
Super Typhoon Mangkhut, known locally as “Ompong”, pummeled the Philippines’ northern provinces on Saturday, resulting in at least 25 deaths and widespread property damage.
As the storm left the Philippines, attention quickly turned to President Rodrigo Duterte’s response to the disaster, including his government’s reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts.
With wind speeds estimated at 255 kilometers per hour and gusts reaching up to 333 kph, the 900-kilometer wide “storm within a superstorm” is the strongest to hit the country in recent years.
Preliminary reports suggest that government agencies and local authorities managed to avoid the worst of the storm by implementing mandatory evacuation and preparatory measures, which appeared to keep casualties relatively low.
When Asia Times went to press late on Saturday, one casualty was confirmed from mountainous Baguio City in the northern Cordillera region, where according to city mayor Mauricio Domogan a woman was killed when a landslide crushed her house. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported another death from the same region without providing details.
Early on Sunday the national toll rose to 25 and most were reportedly caused by landslides in the Cordillera region. That area, especially the province of Benguet where Baguio is located, has consistently ranked as the most landslide-prone area in the country.
Manghkut, named after a Thai tropical fruit, is the 15th storm to hit the Philippines this year alone.
The last major superstorm to hit the Philippines was Haiyan in 2013, which claimed close to 7,000 lives and devastated much of the country’s central region which has yet to fully recover.
The Philippines is particularly prone to natural disasters. According to Verisk Maplecroft, a research outfit, natural hazards in the Philippines tend to be devastating because of “poor institutional and societal capacity to manage, respond and recover from natural hazard events.”
Five cities in the Philippines, mostly in northern Luzon island, have been among the most disaster-prone in the world, namely Tuguegarao in Cagayan Valley (2nd), Lucena in Quezon (3rd) Manila in the capital region (4th), San Fernando in Pampanga (5th), and Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija (6th).
The full extent of damage caused by Mangkhut was still being assessed early on Sunday but officials said that many buildings had been destroyed in Tuguegarao. Rene Paciente, a Filipino meteorologist, had said the typhoon was so strong that it “can lift cars, you can’t stand, you can’t even crawl against that wind.”
The province of Cagayan, perched in the northernmost region of the Philippines and among the nearest to the eye of the storm, saw the early evacuation of up to 10,000 people.
Metro Manila, the country’s capital, was largely spared from the worst of the storm. But more than 1,600 families close to the Marikina River were evacuated early to avoid any casualties.
Last month, the capital region was inundated by Typhoon Yagi, locally known as “Karding”, with wind speeds of up to 90 kilometers per hour. As many as 50,000 residents were evacuated from vulnerable areas, particularly the heavily-populated flood-prone Marikina River basin.
Though casualties remained low, President Rodrigo Duterte was largely absent during that disaster, spending his weekend as usual in his southern home city of Davao.
This time, however, the president chose to stay put in the north to oversee the rescue operations and in coming days will visit storm-affected areas.
“He’s in Manila. He did not leave and is monitoring,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in an interagency briefing on Saturday (Sept. 15). “Knowing him, he will be the first to go to the affected area as soon as the weather will allow his choppers to take off,” Roque added.
Duterte suggested he would deploy his Cabinet members hailing from northern regions to directly monitor the situation on the ground and ensure effective response by government agencies.
“It would depend on the severity of the crisis. If it flattens everything, maybe we need to have some help,” the president said.
Over the past week, Duterte had rarely discussed the incoming storm, which if forecasts are correct could adversely affect as many as four million Filipinos. The president instead chose to focus on his earlier order issued on August 31 to arrest his chief opposition critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes.
His seeming indifference to the storm dismayed many Filipinos, who have called on the president to put aside personal political fights and instead focus his energy on the country’s crises. Apart from Mangkhut, those include an impending food crisis and an inflationary upsurge which has hit the country’s poorest families the hardest.
Mangkhut will test his leadership mettle and is expected to worsen the food situation in the country by destroying large swathes of agricultural lands in food baskets of Isabela and Cagayan. In coming weeks and months, Duterte will also likely be judged for his post-crisis response, including the reconstruction and rehabilitation of devastated provinces.
The previous Benigno Aquino administration came under heavy attack, including by then provincial politician Duterte, for supposedly failing to properly respond to the Haiyan superstorm, the strongest to hit the country in recent memory.
With the effective end of his political honeymoon, the Duterte administration now faces increasingly critical media coverage and tougher public scrutiny. That will put him in the eye of the storm if the official response to Mangkhut is seen as lacking or superficial.