MANILA – Tens of thousands of people fled to evacuation centers on Friday as Typhoon Vongfong headed for the Philippines’ main island, Luzon, pouring heavy rain and raising fears that the coronavirus would spread to centers crowded evacuation routes.
One death has been reported in eastern Samar province, the typhoon, the first to hit the country this season, caused strong winds and rain, destroying hundreds of buildings as well as crops and fishing boats.
Luzon, which is home to around 60 million people, is in extended detention to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But as evacuation centers are now crowded, officials fear they may become breeding grounds for the spread of the virus. Authorities said more than 50,000 people had taken refuge in the centers.
The typhoon, as violent as a Category 3 hurricane, made landfall in the Philippines when it hit Samar Island in the east on Thursday afternoon. Friday morning, it was devastating on the island of Masbate and parts of the province of Quezon at the southern tip of Luzon.
The Civil Protection Office in the capital, Manila, which is located in Luzon, has warned residents living along coastal areas of storm surges up to six feet along the eastern coasts of the Philippines. Moderate to heavy rain was expected for the rest of the day over the Bicol region to the east, as well as over the metropolitan region of Manila and the provinces of Rizal, Quezon, Aurora, Laguna, Bulacan, Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino.
By Friday afternoon, the typhoon had weakened as it moved up Luzon, with maximum sustained winds estimated at around 70 miles per hour. It was to bring heavy showers on the east coast of Luzon.
Images on Twitter showed tin roofs and washed up trees. The storm also cut power and communication lines in large parts of the affected regions.
Mark Timbal, spokesperson for the Office of Civil Protection in Manila, said that local officials in areas on the way to the storm were asked to ensure that refugees in evacuation centers respected the protocols of social distancing.
“This is a unique situation because it is the first time that we will face a natural danger like a storm while taking into account a pandemic situation,” he said.
Shiewin Taay, mayor of the city of Dingalan in Aurora province in eastern Luzon, said on local radio that at least 3,000 families living in disaster-prone areas had been evacuated. He described the situation as a “nightmare scenario”.
He said the usual evacuation centers had been turned into quarantine facilities to deal with the Covid-19 cases, so local agencies were using the schools as temporary shelters.
More than 2,000 families fled to evacuation centers in the central province of northern Samar, according to regional police.
In the municipality of Taft, in the province of Eastern Samar, the risk management and disaster reduction officer, Rhoda Cosipag Barris, said that there were no local reports of casualties, but that the agriculture and fishing had been devastated.
“We are asking for help,” she said. “Our farmers have been greatly affected because their vegetable and other agricultural crops – the main source of their livelihoods – have been literally uprooted and destroyed due to the strong winds caused by the typhoon.” She added that the fishing boats had been washed away.
Fernando Hicap, head of Pamalakaya, a group representing fishermen, said the typhoon displaced many fishermen and farmers along the coasts of Samar, south of Luzon and the Bicol region further east.
He called on the authorities to provide personal protective equipment to the families who have been evacuated because the centers which house them could become centers of spread of the infection.
“Local and national governments must be ready to provide assistance to affected families to ensure that the natural calamity will not worsen the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic,” he said.
At least 20 typhoons hit the Philippines each year, some of them fatal. In 2013, super-typhoon Haiyan hit central Philippines, digging a vast strip of destruction across the country and killing 6,000.