By Regina Junio
It has been a year since Super Typhoon Haiyan violently hit the Philippines. With a diameter of 1,750 kilometers and a strong gust of 315-375 kilometers per hour, its five consecutive landfalls caused devastating storm surges that affected more than 12 million people. The super typhoon caused a total of $12-15 billion in damages and left around 10,000 people dead or missing.
One of the most affected regions was the Province of Eastern Samar. The area had thousands of casualties (death or missing), and its infrastructure was almost leveled. However, the Municipalities of General MacArthur and Balangkayan, both belonging to the Province of Eastern Samar, scored ZERO casualties, an almost unbelievable fact given that these are both poor towns lying directly in the path of the strongest typhoon that ever touched land.
What helped these towns survive?
I had the opportunity to speak with the people and leaders of these two towns. Protection and a well-executed evacuation plan based on learning from past experiences were the two main reasons they were able to lessen the impacts of the super typhoon. Both Mayor Ty of General MacArthur and Mayor Contado of Balangkayan shared that they strictly implemented pre-emptive evacuation two days before the expected landfall. The night before the landfall, an evacuation was enforced urging all residents to move to higher grounds. Mayor Contado iterated that Balangkayan had experienced strong storms and storm surges that damaged houses and coconut trees in the past. Learning from these experiences, the mayor encouraged all 9,046 residents to move to higher ground. Mayor Ty also resonated that a well-implemented evacuation plan helped General MacArthur attain zero casualties.
Aside from having implemented a well-planned evacuation procedure, both municipalities also have hectares and hectares of mangrove forests to thank. These low-lying thickets that hug the shore served as the municipalities’ natural protective barrier against the deadly storm surges. Although Haiyan’s strong winds caused damage to around 90% of the houses, farms, and coconut trees of their coastal communities, the sprawling mangrove forests helped dissipate a lot of energy, thus minimizing the impacts of swelling storm surges.
The Philippines has lost a lot of its old growth mangrove forests to coastal development. Both municipalities, however, have designated their mangrove areas as local preservation sites and have continuously replanted their mangrove forests. With their experience of strong storms in the past, the mangrove forests helped prevent coastal flooding and storm surges. When Haiyan hit the Philippines last year, both towns’ coastal areas were already thick with both old growth and regenerated mangrove forests; a natural protection the people of both municipalities will forever be thankful for.
As the country moves toward rebuilding and rehabilitation, the Philippine government looks not only at rebuilding infrastructure but also at rehabilitating its mangrove forests. Funds have been allocated to prioritize mangrove planting and mangrove forests rehabilitation in many coastal communities in the Philippines. What is amazing about General MacArthur and Balangkayan is that their local people, alongside their local government leaders, have already proactively initiated rehabilitation of their mangrove forests even before the intervention of the national government agencies. While most government offices and other towns were still at the peak of the relief efforts, the people of General MacArthur and Balangkayan were already out, replanting and rehabilitating the uprooted mangrove trees that helped save their lives.
The experience of both municipalities will tell us that a well-executed Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (DRRM) can help save lives; with protection and prevention being strategic components of a DRRM Plan. Mangrove forests are both win-win mitigation and adaptation strategies, an approach to resilience building that communities can actively take part in.
Primavera, J.H. “Shelter from the storm: Coastal greenbelts of mangroves and beach forests.” The Philippine Star, December 19, 2013.