A Filipino resident sits inside a vehicle during an evacuation of informal settlers living along coastal areas in Manila on November 1, 2020, as Super Typhoon Goni moved towards the Philippine capital. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

MANILA – The Philippines was hit with the reputed “strongest storm in history” on the weekend, killing at least 10 and adding to the nation’s economic and health miseries. The absence of President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, has added a political aspect to the natural disaster.  

With maximum sustained winds of more than 300 kilometers per hour, Typhoon Goni was the strongest of its kind in the Western Pacific since Super Typhoon Meranti in 2016.

Reports suggest that the killer storm was stronger than even the 2013 Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated large parts of the north and central Philippines, including major cities such as Tacloban.

Then and now, President Rodrigo Duterte was largely a no-show when the typhoon made landfall, prompting netizens to express frustrations with a #NasaanAngPangulo (where is the president?) hashtag, which has trended strongly nationwide over the past 24 hours.

Goni was the 18th tropical cyclone to hit the Philippines this year, with another one, Tropical Storm Atsan, expected to make landfall later this week. On average, the Philippines is hit by 20 major storms every year, a fact that is further complicating the country’s struggle with the Covid-19 crisis.

Rescue workers help an evacuee onto a waiting vehicle during an evacuation of informal settlers living along coastal areas in Manila on November 1, 2020, as Super Typhoon Goni moved towards the Philippine capital. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The powerful tropical depression devastated countless homes and drove the evacuation of as many as one million residents and closed the international airport in Manila for 24 hours on Sunday.

In Catanduanes, an island hit first by the super typhoon, as many as 275,000 Filipinos were cut off from electricity and communications due to the gusting winds.

In the Guinobatan municipality of Albay, among the worst-affected areas, as many as 300 houses were buried under rubble and with “several people believed to be buried alive”, according to authorities quoted in local media reports. Home to an active volcano, the typhoon also triggered volcanic mudflows that “engulfed” as many 150 houses, reports said.

The storm hit the main island of Luzon, home to the national capital of Manila.

In sum, as many as 19 million people may have been affected by the typhoon, including those in “danger zones for landslides, flooding, storm surges and even a lava flow,” Mark Timbal, spokesperson for the Philippine’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, told the BBC.  

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections and co-founder of Weather Underground, described the typhoon as “the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone [in history]”. Goni is the world’s third category 5 storm this year, he said on Yale’s website.  

The government has defended its response. Authorities said they were able to save 1.07 million tonnes of rice thanks to early warning systems and that the death toll would have been much higher without preemptory evacuations.

But there are growing worries that with tens of thousands of displaced families forced into emergency shelters, the government will struggle to effectively and safely manage both disaster relief and a Covid-19 outbreak that has accounted for 383,000 cases and 7,200 deaths.

There are also concerns over the storm’s economic fallout, since the island of Luzon is responsible for almost two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

A tricycle speeds past toppled electric posts destroyed at the height of super Typhoon Goni after it hit Tabaco, Albay province, south of Manila on November 1, 2020. Photo: AFP/Charism Sayat

In its latest report, the International Monetary Fund warned that the Philippine economy will likely be the worst affected in the coming years as many countries grapple with  “long, uneven and uncertain” recovery paths ahead.

The Philippines will suffer a 13 point growth decline between 2020 and 2025, followed by India and Argentina, according to the IMF.

“This typhoon has smashed into people’s lives and livelihoods on top of the relentless physical, emotional and economic toll of Covid-19,” said Philippine Red Cross chairman and Senator, Richard Gordon.

Duterte, whose management of the Covid crisis has come under question following a belated and prolonged lockdown, was largely out of sight during the storm.

That’s par for the leader’s course: Back in 2018, during another super typhoon that hit Metro-Manila, Duterte was reportedly taking shelter far away in his hometown of Davao in the southern island of Mindanao.

To the consternation of many Filipinos, the then-missing-in-action president instead sent a look-alike comedian to a government-organized event in the city of Marikina in the national capital region.

Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay lamented in response in a tweet at the time, “Tragedies require presence. That’s a minimum requirement of leadership.”

With a repeat of that experience under Goni, Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque came under fire for conducting a press conference a day after, rather than before, the storm hit the country’s heartland.

The Filipino leader has also come under fire for his earlier politicized shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media network, which until recently was the primary source of crucial information in far-flung areas hit by disasters.

Countless people were left in the dark due to a lack of access to high-speed internet as well as limited coverage by other major news networks.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte surveys the destruction at Albay, November 2, 2020. Image: Twitter

Senator Christopher Go, a longtime Duterte aide, has defended the president’s response, claiming the leader has been monitoring the situation closely from his hometown of Davao.

Duterte visited the worst-affected areas in Albay on Monday to show support for affected residents and oversee relief and rescue operations, which were already being conducted on the ground by his main political rival, Vice President Leni Robredo.

“The goal should be zero casualties but since people were forcibly evacuated our casualties were reduced,” said presidential spokesman Roque, in defending the government’s response to the crisis.