Published:  12:22 AM, 15 May 2020

Typhoon forces risky evacuations in virus-hit Philippines

Typhoon forces risky evacuations in virus-hit Philippines Tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate in the Philippines because of a powerful typhoon. -AFP

A powerful typhoon hit the central Philippines Thursday, forcing a complicated and risky evacuation for tens of thousands of people, many of them heading to cramped shelters without proper safety gear to guard against the coronavirus. Typhoon Vongfong sheared roofs from houses, uprooted coconut trees and dumped heavy rain as it made landfall on the island of Samar, sending locals to emergency shelters.

Because of the twin threat of the storm and the virus, evacuation centers in the central Philippines said they will only accept half their capacity and evacuees will have to wear facemasks. Hundreds of thousands live in coastal areas and flimsy homes near where the storm blasted ashore, and tens of millions more on the storm's forecast path that runs near the capital Manila.

"We are trapped in a nightmare situation where we face the threat of the storm as well as COVID," evacuee Mary Ann Encinares said at a shelter, where she and her children had fashioned masks out of handkerchiefs and rubber bands. The surge of people and limited space mean authorities have asked big churches in the area to accept people fleeing the typhoon, which is the first of the season.

"We will be overwhelmed so we're expanding our evacuation to include churches," said Cedric Daep  disaster chief in central Albay province. Some towns had also converted their evacuation centers into sites to deal with coronavirus patients, forcing them to consider using schools shuttered by the pandemic.

"The problem there is how do you address the issue of social distancing inside the classrooms?," asked Ben Evardone, governor of the central province Eastern Samar. Vongfong is packing gusts up to 190 kilometers (120 miles) an hour as well as drenching rains that could cause flooding and landslides, the national weather agency said. Areas in the typhoon's path are under varying levels of virus quarantine, yet many people are staying at home to avoid infection.

The Philippines has reported 790 deaths and 11,876 cases of the virus, though the number is believed to be higher due to limited testing.

It is not unheard of for disasters to overlap in the Philippines, and some 22,000 people were evacuated from the slopes of the active Mayon volcano ahead of the typhoon's arrival.

---AFP, Manila

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