Effects of Typhoons Urduja and Vinta in Biliran and Lanao del Norte

In December last year, two typhoons hit the Philippines: Urduja (international: Kai-Tak) and Vinta (international: Tembin). Both weren’t particularly strong typhoons (at least from what we experience in the Philippines); Urduja peaked at Category 1 and Vinta as a Tropical Storm in the Saffir-Simpson Scale. What made the two typhoons deadly were the excessive rainfall that came with them.

Based on NDRRMC reports, 47 and 173 people died from the effects of Urduja and Vinta (e.g. floods, landslides), respectively. From my observations in past disasters, actual figures could be higher.

Here are satellite images showing some of the effects of the said typhoons: landslides in Biliran and debris flows in Lanao del Sur.

In Biliran, 40 people were reportedly killed. Looking at the Sentinel 2 satellite image below, I was able to count 505 landslides. I suspect that the actual number of landslides could be higher since each pixel of the image is only 10 x 10 meters in real life. This means that landslides smaller than that would be hard to detect just by looking at the image. It is also worth noting that a few months before the typhoon was a very strong earthquake, a M 6.5 earthquake in Leyte, that shook the region. Was earthquake was strong enough to have weakened the slopes in Biliran?

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Meanwhile in the municipality of Tubod, Lanao del Sur, a barangay (village) was devastated by what appears to be debris flows, judging by the photos from here and here. From the satellite image below, we can see multiple landslides from the upper watershed where the river in Barangay Dalama drains from. These are likely where the rocks and other debris came from, which would have then incorporated materials along its path.

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Looking closer, we can see a small community that was washed out by the debris flow. The active stream bends to the southwest; people actually settled within the floodplain of the river. So when the debris flow came, it flowed straight onto the community, following the path of least resistance.

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I am extremely heartbreaken looking at the data and reading articles about this disaster. While it may be a positive sign that disaster officials view this disaster as “unacceptable,” I think that it is important to look at the whole process of disaster risk reduction, from the forecasts, to the warnings, down to the quality of information passed on to the communities. Implying that the “cooperation of the public” was the reason for the disaster practically throws the victims under the bus.

Having been embedded in several disaster-related operations, from preparation to post-disaster assessment, I’ve seen how much dedication and hard work the women and men in the field put day in and day out. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen how much politics impede much of the progress that could have been made. While I don’t know all the facts about this disaster, so it’s hard to say who’s accountable, I am still hoping that institutional reforms will be forthcoming to address these issues, sooner rather than later. Otherwise, people will continue to die needlessly from preventable disasters.

To view the images in Google Earth, you can download the kmz files here: Biliran, Lanao del Norte

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