Within the past 24 hours, torrential rains have caused massive flooding in Manila, bringing the sprawling capital of the Philippines to a standstill. Dr Mahar Lagmay, executive director of Project Noah, the country’s diasaster mitigation system, said rainfall in Metro Manila (the City of Manila and its surrounding areas) has surpassed the levels of Typhoon Ketsana, which devastated Manila in 2009 and resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated and 15 deaths have been reported so far. CNN claimed 500mm of rain have fallen in Manila over the past 48 hours, while according to an AFP report, a landslide buried four houses in a Manila slum area.
Schools, financial markets and government offices were closed on Tuesday as flooding on major roadways made travel impossible. Schools in affected areas will remain closed on Wednesday. Non-stop monsoon rains have left hundreds stranded on roads and the government has issued landslide warnings in provinces outside the capital. Roads have turned into rivers, and on some streets people could be seen floating on whatever they could find.
Jean Navarez of the state weather service said: “If we put it in a percentage, at least 50% of Metro Manila is flooded.” Benito Ramos, executive director of the national disaster risk reduction and management council said the continued floods were due to the fact that soil remains saturated after several days of continuous rain. He added that “the sea and the flood waters looked like one single body of water”.
Massive evacuation and relief efforts have been underway throughout Metro Manila and nearby provinces. According to Red Cross volunteer Benjo Ramos, whose team has rescued more than 92 people so far, water levels have reached nine to 15 feet in some areas. “Some are stranded on the second floor, some are losing their second floors [and] calling for help from the roofs of houses,” he said. “We are taking them from houses to shelters, and feeding them – all our teams are out.”
A local emergency response team led by Melvin Villaruz, a councillor for Pasig City, has already evacuated 300 families of “informal settlers” living along the Pasig river, a 27km waterway that winds through Metro Manila. These disadvantaged communities are living there illegally but have nowhere else to go. “It’s very bad,” he said. “Beside the river it’s flooded area. Half the Pasig [river] is almost near the neck.”
He added: “We take them to schools or gyms for safety. We also rescued 10 children who were living under a bridge on the river. We warned them what will happen if the river rises in a few hours.”
Flooded roads make it difficult to reach these areas. On the way to the river, Villaruz’s team rescued a family of eight (a grandmother, five children and two adults) who could not leave their homes because the water had reached shoulder level.
John Javellana, a photojournalist who has covered every major typhoon in the country in the past four years, is surprised at how victims are responding to the flood. He says they are more prepared, even though there was no official typhoon warning sent out by the weather service (the local news reported only an upgraded rainfall alert and a warning of flooding in low-lying parts and areas located near river channels ).
“It was a relief to see,” said Javellana. “Although not ideal yet, people co-operated more with rescue workers. During Typhoon Ondoy [Ketsana], many people were hesitant to leave until the last minute because they were afraid of losing belongings. Now if it’s only a forecast for heavy rains and the government says go, they do.”
Ramos also noticed a difference in today’s rescue efforts. “Everyone pitched in – military, local government, police, NGOs … This time, everything was more organised and obviously people had learned from past disasters.”
Evacuation centres were also very organised, with relief goods making it on time, said Ramos. “It’s by the book – we are prepared this time. But there is a lot more work to be done, more families to be saved; it’s not over yet.”