Motorists make their way through uprooted coconut trees and electric pylons along the highway near Oras town, Eastern Samar province, on May 15, 2020, a day after Typhoon Vongfong hit the town. Photo: AFP/Alren Beronia

Tens of thousands of people were forced into cramped shelters by a powerful storm pounding the Philippines on Friday, making social distancing nearly impossible as the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Typhoon Vongfong flattened flimsy coastal homes when it roared ashore on central Samar island on Thursday, but then weakened into a severe tropical storm on its path north to the capital Manila. 

The storm hit as tens of millions of Filipinos are hunkered down at home against the coronavirus, but at least 141,700 had to flee in central Bicol province because of the powerful storm, disaster officials said.

“We have to wear masks and apply distancing at all times,” said local police official Carlito Abriz. “It’s difficult to enforce because they (the evacuees) are stressed. But we are doing our best.”

Bicol saw less damage than hard-hit Samar, so some of those in shelters had begun to return home after the storm passed on Friday, disaster officials reported.

Authorities have said they will run shelters at half of capacity, provide masks to people who don’t have them and try to keep families grouped together.

However, many spaces normally used as storm shelters have been converted into quarantine sites for people suspected of being infected with coronavirus.

“The challenge really lies in the physical distancing,” said disaster official Junie Castillo, who added they were housing people in classrooms emptied by the pandemic. 

Fortunately the central region where the storm struck first is not one of the hotspots of the Philippines’ outbreak, which has seen 11,876 reported infections and 790 dead.

Overlapping disasters

Tens of millions more people live along Vongfong’s path, which is forecast to take it near the densely populated capital Manila later Friday or early Saturday.

Disaster officials in Manila, which is the center of the nation’s virus outbreak, said they have not ordered pre-emptive evacuations for the capital but have issued storm warnings.

Authorities have not reported any deaths so far, but disaster crews had not yet completed their assessment of hard-hit areas cut off by the storm.

It is not unheard of for disasters to overlap in the Philippines, and some 22,000 people were evacuated from the slopes of the active Mayon volcano ahead of the typhoon’s arrival.

Heavy rains in the past have sent landslides of debris cascading down the volcano, burying and killing the communities in their paths.

Typhoons are a dangerous and disruptive part of life in the Philippine archipelago, which gets hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons each year.

The storms put millions of people in disaster-prone areas in a state of constant poverty and rebuilding.

A July 2019 study by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank said the most frequent storms lop 1% off the Philippine economy, with the stronger ones cutting economic output by nearly 3%.

Many of the areas in Vongfong’s path have already gone through much of their emergency disaster money while responding to the pandemic, and have asked the national government for help.

The country’s deadliest cyclone on record was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.

AFP

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