A pressing need

A pressing need

The passage of off-season Typhoon Ambo, downgraded to a storm as it moved away from the country, highlighted a problem that should have been addressed a long time ago: the inadequacy of evacuation facilities.

Public schools and their gymnasiums have always been used as evacuation centers. Education officials have long complained about this, pointing out that it disrupted classes long after the disaster is over.

There have been proposals to build facilities dedicated to evacuation purposes, but opponents say the need is seasonal and the country has other funding priorities. In fact the country faces the threat of natural calamities all year round, which could call for the evacuation of communities.

With the archipelago situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, earthquakes can strike any time – including the “Big One” in Metro Manila that seismologists have been warning about. Volcanoes dot the islands, and they erupt without warning – as Taal Volcano did in January, disrupting flights in Manila and forcing the evacuation of entire towns.

A looming humanitarian crisis in the evacuation centers for the volcano victims was averted only because Taal’s activity mercifully subsided and the evacuees were sent home.

With torrential monsoon rains, storm surges and an average of 20 typhoons hitting the country every year, spawning ruinous floods and killer mudslides, the country should have had facilities dedicated to disaster evacuation a long time ago. Even the onslaught of Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, however, failed to lead to the necessary reforms.

With the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, during which facilities used as evacuation centers have been turned into isolation and quarantine areas for COVID-19 cases, local governments dealing at the same time with Ambo are now facing what one of them has described as a “nightmare.”

The national government is currently reviewing infrastructure priorities as the impact of COVID-19 on public health and the economy is assessed. The World Health Organization has warned that the COVID virus may never go away. Clearly, you can’t have quarantine areas functioning at the same time as evacuation centers in a pandemic. It’s time to take a closer look at the need to set up decent evacuation centers.