Within a span of 18 days, three powerful typhoons – one of them the strongest in the world in 2020 and among the strongest in recorded history – struck the major island of Luzon in the Philippines. Hard hit were the provinces of the Bicol region including the provinces of Catanduanes, Albay, Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte. This region often lies in the path of typhoons so that Bicolanos have learned to brace for the worse. But getting swamped by three consecutive howlers in less than 3 weeks is simply too much.
Metro Manila wasn’t spared from the effects of 2 of the 3 storms but the Bicol provinces had the worst of it. Our thoughts immediately turned to these provinces, most of which we’ve visited and had grown to love in the last 10 years.
Typhoon Quinta (international name Molave) was the first to hit the region, making landfall in Tabaco City, Albay province last October 25. With maximum sustained winds of 130 kph (85 mph), this storm downed power lines and trees and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in Albay and Sorsogon province while heavy rains caused widespread flooding throughout the region and in the rest of southern Luzon.
The next cyclone to hit, Super Typhoon Rolly (international name Goni), was a monster with catastrophic 10- minute sustained winds of 225 kph (140 mph), and 1-minute sustained winds of 315 kph (195 mph), making it the strongest tropical cyclone in the world for 2020. This last feature made Rolly the strongest recorded tropical cyclone to ever make landfall anywhere in the world, surpassing in this category even Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013. Many of the casualties from Typhoon Rolly came from Catanduanes and Albay, the 2 provinces hardest hit by the howler.
Rolly initially made landfall in Bato, Catanduanes province. When typhoons hit land for the first time they usually do so at maximum intensity before weakening as they traverse a land mass. The eastern coastal towns of Catanduanes were therefore the hardest hit of all. Many houses in Bato were destroyed leaving residents without shelter, clean water, power and livelihood. We dropped by Bato town 3 years ago to enjoy the Maribina Falls, its 19th century church and peaceful coastal scenery. Today it is hard to imagine what became of the houses and other structures along the coast.
Just north of Bato is the town of Baras. The highlights of our trip to Baras in 2017 were our visit to Binurong Point with its rolling hills and rugged coast and Puraran Beach, a destination popular with surfers. Sadly, the resorts at the latter were almost completely destroyed. Even more unfortunate many of the fishermen lost their boats to the typhoon’s big waves, eliminating their main livelihood asset.
Government data showed that about 90% of the infrastructure in Catanduanes were damaged and more than 65 per cent of homes in the province were devastated, some engulfed by a 5-meter high storm surge. In Gigmoto, a town north of Baras, a section of the coastal road was destroyed by the storm surge.
Catanduanes’ capital, Virac, lies along the southern coast but there was still widespread destruction in the area including the devastation of the abaca crop, a major source of livelihood here. We stayed at the Twin Rocks Beach Resort in Virac, using that place as a base for our tour of the province. Their Facebook page showed trees and other vegetation ravaged by the winds but the resort was still open for incoming guests.
After carving out a wide swath of destruction at Catanduanes, Typhoon Rolly made another landfall at Tiwi, Albay before continuing on as a slightly weakened typhoon to Quezon province. “Slightly weakened” meant winds somewhere in the region of 175-190 kph, still catastrophic. However, another disastrous effect of Rolly was the heavy rains that triggered flash floods that washed away bridges and lahar flow from Mayon Volcano. The latter swamped houses, vehicles, farm lands and livestock, buried several people alive and blocked roads in Legazpi, Tabaco, Guinobatan, Santo Domingo, and Camalig.
The next typhoon, Ulysses (international name Vamco) was less destructive than Rolly but still peaked with 10-min sustained winds at 130 kph (81 mph) and 1-minute sustained winds of 176 kph (109 mph). Its center passed slightly north of Catanduanes, further hammering a province still recovering from Typhoon Rolly’s rampage just 10 days earlier. Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte provinces, just west of Catanduanes on the Bicol mainland, had already suffered from Typhoon Rolly’s passage. Ulysses brought more violent winds and heavy rain that uprooted trees, induced landslides, and triggered flash floods in both provinces.
After Typhoon Rolly, the main circumferential road in Catanduanes was cleared of debris but just over a week later was blocked again by boulders due to landslides. We were thinking that since both typhoons Rolly and Ulysses passed well to the north of Masbate province, which we’ve visited twice and stayed the longest (as part of our work to help needy families), that island province would have been spared of both typhoon’s devastation. This was not to be in Burias Island where roads were blocked due to uprooted trees, landslides, and flash floods. These incidents made relief operations in these locations almost impossible until the roads were cleared.
Still reeling from the onslaught of Typhoon Rolly, parts of the Camarines provinces had to endure heavy flooding again due to the torrential rains brought by Typhoon Ulysses. Even before Ulysses hit land, many towns in Camarines Norte and Camarines Sur were already experiencing waist-high flooding. 10 of the 12 towns in Camarines Norte recorded flooding. It was the same for 23 municipalities in Camarines Sur including the cities of Naga and Iriga.
Filipinos, including our fellow Bicolanos, are a resilient if fatalistic people. Perhaps it is because the country had to endure typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions year in and year out. The Philippines’ location in the Pacific’s Ring of Fire and the vast expanse of ocean to the east has made these natural catastrophes all but expected. But every time disasters of this magnitude hit home we can’t help but grieve with many of our affected countrymen especially the poor who have lose their meager possessions and worse, some of their love ones.