Ursula’s Wrath: When typhoon Ursula battered Boracay on Christmas Day

By Freida Dario-Santiago

The 21st and one of the strongest typhoons to hit the country this year, Typhoon “Ursula” (international name Phanfone) battered the Visayas region on December 25, leveling homes and properties, flooding communities, and isolating towns from fallen trees and debris.


The resort island was ravaged to the core leaving hundreds homeless. The typhoon (equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane) completely cutoff Boracay from any means of communications for about four to five days, with spotty and intermittent internet connection for about a week, and paralyzed bank services until New Year’s Day.


Considered the busiest time of the year for the country’s premiere tourist destination, with holiday-makers flocking to the island for the festivities, many of whom were unable to cross to the island, the onslaught triggered a province-wide blackout due to toppled electrical poles that plunged the island into total darkness for almost two weeks, unbeknownst to the thousands of New Year’s revelers billeted in hotels and resorts on world-famous White Beach.


Aptly named Ursula, the powerful sea goddess and daughter of Poseidon according to Greek mythology, also the villainous sea witch of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” the typhoon pummeled the resort island on Christmas day, leaving it ravaged as if from war, with plumes of smoke from the burning of fallen trees, garbage and debris (due to the absolute absence of clearing operations for the entire week until New Year’s), and tons of garbage and left uncollected along the streets on the day after New Year’s, one week after the typhoon struck.


Due to the fuel shortage that reached its tipping point on the 29th of December, households and small businesses were paralyzed and remained in the dark, also causing a breakdown in private and public transportation for both motor and electric tricycles, until the first week of January when school started. The transport crisis was exacerbated by the indignity of workers and school children having to march home while drivers chose to serve the moneyed tourists.


But in spite of the long lines for fuel all day and night, and all the other tensions from the chaos, people remained calm, collected, and peaceful. Despite the devastation, according to reports there were zero fatalities on the island of Boracay.


The typhoon that first made landfall in Salcedo, Eastern Samar on Christmas Eve took everyone completely by surprise even with early warnings by the weather bureau. On Christmas eve, the sun was shining when the Coast Guard stopped water passage to and from the island at noon. People prepared for the signal number two typhoon as best as one could while going about their merry Christmas ways, until early in the morning of Christmas day at around 6 a.m. when all hell broke loose.


As children were roused from sleep by the howling winds, households braced themselves for what turned out to be the storm of their lives.


Families were forced to barricade themselves inside closets or to hide huddled in their bathrooms with the entire household and their pets for hours on Christmas morning. The indescribable and terrifying noises came from all sides, described by business owner Madonna English as “There was this unrelenting noise on my rooftop of what sounded like a giant running around dragging a huge clanking metal making some truly terrifying noises which turned out to be someone else’s balcony railings. Prayers and chanting intensified. My Globe connection died. I had never felt more grateful to have lived the life I’ve lived. In the midst of the deafening howling winds and the mantras, I could truly feel my heart beating ringing thru my ears. Then there were tears ... for me and the collective. More pummeling, roaring, clanking, banging, crashing like a truly possessed powerful being.”


On December 25, at 11 a.m., weather bureau PAGASA warned, “Typhoon Ursula is bringing very destructive winds and intense rainfall over Aklan, northern portion of Antique, and Romblon.”


“In case of the passage of the eye in some of the aforementioned areas, calm conditions will be experienced. However, as soon as the eye moves out of the area, violent conditions associated with the eyewall will resume,” the weather bureau said.

WeatherPh.org posted this update: “The ragged eye was located along the offshore areas of Northwestern Panay (near 12.0°N 121.8°E), about 15 kilometers northwest of Boracay Island, Aklan or 93-kilometers east-southeast of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro with maximum sustained winds (10-minutes average): 165 kilometers per hour near the center and gustiness at 200 kilometers per hour.”


By mid-morning, as the eye circled the island, those that could, tried to find a better place to hide, and those already indoors struggled to reinforce their fortresses by piling shelves and furniture up against their doors and windows. Soon enough they were blindsided as another round, fiercer this time, lashed out and bombarded whatever was left, crumpling homes.


We are told that the storm had only begun to subside sometime in the afternoon, at which time the survivors emerged from their places of refuge to the horrifying and inexplicable scenes of utter turmoil and devastation – and with no power, no landlines, no cell coverage, and with internet lines down, there was no means of communications and no way to let the outside world know how they were doing. Did we mention burst water pipes and ATMs and credit card services also down?


Many described it as the most frightening and intense experience of their lives, as their roofs flew off, glass doors broke, walls came apart, neighboring corrugated roofs and every imaginable appliance crashed into their rooms, for hours.


“Of all days,” many thought in disbelief and shock. Just as they were beginning to feel hopeful that their businesses would finally recover from the six-month island closure, the fires, “why of all days, on what is supposed to be the happiest day of the year (especially in the Philippines), and during the peak tourist season, did everything once again get taken away, for no reason?” The day of celebrations turned out to be a day of utter loss and defeat.


Ursula was indeed life-threatening and although everyone that was on the island on Christmas felt lucky to have survived, the aftermath and the trauma of the events that could only be attributed to force majeure, continues to be a grueling process of rebuilding and recovering, financially, physically and emotionally. Resilient, as proven time and again in recent years, Malay town and Boracay Island’s people chose to see the positives in the tragedy, such as the reminder to get back to and to cope with the basics – meeting up with people rather than texting, savoring sunny days and the refreshing outdoors, touching base with those you care about, and above all, sacrificing in the face of need and sharing the everything you’ve got with your neighbor.


For those of us who were not on the island, the worry and concern for our brethren in Boracay was insurmountable, especially not being able to reach anybody, not hearing from anybody, and unable to travel to the island due to cancelled flights and the temporary closure of the Kalibo International Airport. According to news reports, 115 domestic flights were canceled and more than 15,700 passengers were left stranded.


Although news reports covered the Visayas as a whole, surprisingly there was very minimal national coverage about Boracay – the country’s crown jewel of tourism, even in the weeks after it was hit hard, in biblical proportions.


On January 6, the sad news broke of 31-year-old Jose Pablo Biaco, a lineman of Capiz Electric Cooperative (CAPELCO) who got electrocuted while fixing an electrical wire in Barangay Malocloc Sur, Ivisan, Capiz.


As of this writing (three weeks after), power has only been restored to portions of the island while other barangays such as this writer’s remains dark and besieged by generator noise and fumes.


According to a report by Nestor P. Burgos for Inquirer.net, on January 8, “The full restoration of electricity in Aklan province is expected to take at least two more weeks as teams replace or repair lines and structures damaged or destroyed by Typhoon “Ursula.” Engineer Alexis Regalado, general manager of the Aklan Electric Cooperative (AKELCO), said they were targeting the normalization of power supply in the province by January 25 and complete the restoration of electric supply on Boracay Island by this week.” As of January 11, According to AKELCO, 18/19 towns have been energized, 219/381 barangays have been fully energized, and 100,271/146,629 households have been served – except this writer’s.


Visayas was the worst hit and the eye passed directly over Boracay Island.


On January 4, Zabal reported: “In Malay, the typhoon partially destroyed 4,300 houses and totally damaged 600. At least 29 persons were also reported injured.” (Source:https://www.rappler.com/nation/248515-boracay-island-still-recovering-from-typhoon-ursula)


On December 28, in a Rappler article entitled “Ursula leaves at least 4 dead, 51 injured in Aklan” by Boy Ryan B. Zabal, he reported: “Typhoon Ursula affected more than 80,000 families, or some 355,396 individuals, and left at least 5 people dead and some 51 injured, a report from the Aklan Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO) said on Saturday, December 28.” (Source: https://www.rappler.com/nation/248122-typhoon-ursula-aklan-damage-casualty-reports-december-2019)


On December 31,he reported that based on the initial report of damage brought by Typhoon Ursula as of Monday, December 30, during the visit of Agriculture secretary William Dar, “Typhoon Ursula (Phanfone) caused P65-million worth of damage and losses in agriculture in the province of Aklan. Heavy losses are recorded in rice, corn, banana, vegetable, and fruit tree plantations. The fisheries sector also takes a hit.” (Source:https://www.rappler.com/business/248265-agriculture-damage-caused-by-typhoon-ursula-aklan-december-31-2019)


According to BSN reporter Jun N. Aguirre, “Reports coming from the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office said that the town of Malay has registered one fatality because of the typhoon Ursula.”

(Read Task Force Eyes New Regulations for Boracay Garbage Woes” on page 6).


As the people of Boracay begin to rebuild once again, we can only learn from this catastrophic Christmas. Hopefully, the various agencies in the barangay, local, and national levels tasked to protect and serve its people make it a top and urgent priority to address emergency, calamity and disaster response on the tiny island of Boracay – touted as one of the best islands in the world.


At the rate and intensity that climate change (think global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, over-population, sea-level rise and droughts) has been causing extreme weather events all over the world, and stronger and more violent typhoons in the Philippines (considered one of the world’s most typhoon impacted places in the world with an average of 20 per year killing scores of people and wiping out harvests, homes and other infrastructure and keeping millions perennially poor), Ursula should serve as a strong warning that must be taken very seriously. If we do not heed this warning and start taking strides towards mitigating environmental degradation, it will happen again, as surely as the sun rose this morning.


On November 7, 2013 at 4:40 a.m., typhoon Haiyan known in the Philippines as Super Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines with a wind speed of 235 miles per hour / 380 kilometers per hour (Category 5). The deadliest Philippine typhoon on record killed at least at least 6,300 people and left millions homeless. It is listed as the fourth deadliest typhoon in the world and most intense storm ever recorded in history by Global Indonesian Voices (Source:https://www.globalindonesianvoices.com/10574/4-deadliest-typhoons-in-history/).


Just as the world was beginning to take in the almost unimaginable devastation wrought by Yolanda, young Filipino diplomat, Naderev "Yeb" Saño, a scientist and head of the national climate commission at the time, took to the floor in front of delegates from 190 countries at the UN climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. In his speech, he linked super typhoon Haiyan to manmade climate change and urged the world to wake up to the reality of what he said was happening from Latin America to south east Asia and the US. He lambasted the rich countries, and dared climate change deniers to go to his country to see for themselves what was happening.


“We must stop calling events like these as natural disasters," he told the UN. "It is not natural when science already tells us that global warming will induce more intense storms. It is not natural when the human species has already profoundly changed the climate.”


Six years later, typhoon Ursula tracks a similar path as Super Typhoon Yolanda.


Read about the miraculous story of bravery and heroism in our midst, “Heroism in the Face of Death”on the front page.

Recommended reading:

“In Asia Pacific the climate crisis is happening now, not in the future”

By Helen Regan, CNN (Published Dec 25, 2019 3:33:51 PM)

Link: https://cnnphilippines.com/world/2019/12/25/Asia-Pacific-climate-change

Your insider's guide to the New Boracay Island

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