At Typhoon's Eye in Philippines, Whipping Debris and Fervent PrayersSeptember 16, 2018
APARRI, Philippines — A day after Typhoon Mangkhut tore through the Philippines, officials began to discover that the human toll from the storm was worse than they had thought.
In Benguet Province, in the western highlands of northern Luzon, a landslide crushed a church and a bunkhouse for miners. With other landslide victims in the province, officials feared on Sunday that the number of deaths could surpass 100. A search for bodies was underway.
Elsewhere in mountainous parts of the island, landslides buried homes, killing inhabitants who chose not to take shelter in one of the many evacuation centers opened for the storm. By late Sunday, the unofficial count from the police was 59 dead, but that did not include what could be the worst toll in Benguet Province.
Typhoon Mangkhut, which raged across north Luzon island early Saturday, surpassed Hurricane Florence in its ferocious intensity. But a combination of fortunate geography, low population density and hard lessons from Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 in 2013, helped limit the number of casualties.
Still, the toll was brutal.
Four members of the Allaga family were buried alive when their mountain home was deluged by a landslide in Nueva Vizcaya. The family had sent three of their children to an evacuation center, but the father, Gilbert Allaga, stayed behind with the youngest siblings to care for their livestock, said Francis Tolentino, who is leading the government relief operation.
“If you have to choose between your life or your animals, you should choose your life,” Mr. Tolentino said.
In the Centro 2 neighborhood of Aparri, a fishing town on the north coast of Luzon, 40 of the 108 houses were damaged by Mangkhut, which is known in the Philippines as Ompong.
An additional eight homes were beyond repair, said Jefferson Labbao, the community leader. With unemployment pushing 30 percent and 80 percent of residents considered indigent, it was unclear how repairs would be financed.
On Sunday afternoon, the first time the skies cleared since Mangkhut swept past Aparri, Gloria Panlasigui surveyed the wreck of the residential compound where she had lived for more than six decades.
Earlier that day, neighbors had helped right her home, pushing its lopsided frame straight again. But the roof was gone, as were most of the walls. The door was jammed into place, its hand-painted message still clear: “God bless us.”
Ms. Panlasigui, 71, said this was the worst typhoon she had ever experienced. “I just prayed that I would see my children again,” she said, mimicking the furious hum of the wind — hoot, hooot, hoooooot.
As I was crossing north Luzon, the eye of Typhoon Mangkhut was maybe 12 miles, or 20 kilometers, away. We had driven past downed electricity poles, uprooted trees and coconuts that fell from the sky with alarming constancy. A branch hit the window with the crack of a bullet.
We knew we had to take shelter. “Time to get inside a decent structure/basement to ride out the worst of it,” wrote Tug Wilson, The Times’s security specialist, in a WhatsApp message.
But there was no decent structure or basement on this stretch of the northwest coast of Luzon in the Philippines. The nearest solid building, a Seventh Day Adventist church, was padlocked shut.
Gen Paz was driving. He parked the car perpendicular to the wind to lessen the chance that the gusts would flip the vehicle. The wind vibrated in a low, haunting whistle that made me realize, for the first time, what a whistling wind really sounded like.
During a brief respite in the storm, Mr. Paz inched the car forward and parked next to a gas station, hoping the bulk of the building would shield us. Then we heard the tin roof of the building across the street rattling an increasingly rapid syncopation.
We could not go south, away from the storm, because a recently felled tree blocked our path. So Mr. Paz edged the car toward the storm. As we drove away, the tin roof unmoored itself, flying into the air like a prop for “The Wizard of Oz.”
In the days before Mangkhut made landfall in the Philippines, local authorities swung into action, going door to door in vulnerable neighborhoods to encourage residents to evacuate. At least 105,000 people had sought temporary shelter, officials said. In other neighborhoods, volunteers pre-emptively sawed branches off trees that looked likely to snap during the typhoon.
Even if Mangkhut didn’t kill thousands like Haiyan did, the storm still punished north Luzon. This fertile farmland is a favored path of typhoons, which gather strength over the western Pacific and pummel their way across the Philippines toward China.
Five percent of local budgets are dedicated to calamity funds — and they rarely go unused. “There are a lot of calamities here,” said Rewin Valenzuela, the leader of the Bangan community in Sanchez-Mira. “It’s the Philippines.”
Off the coast, the sea was stained the color of milky coffee at least half a mile out, rather than tropical turquoise. Paddy fields were inundated, the rice bowl of the country transformed into a vast lake. Only the green roof of the Calog Sur elementary school protruded from the floodwaters, along with the top of a basketball hoop.
On mountain roads, neighborhood work crews — an escape valve for chronic underemployment in the Philippines — used chain saws to chop up trees that landslides had thrust on the road. For an hour and a half, our vehicle was the only one negotiating one mountain pass, where the road was so thickly carpeted by palm fronds and other foliage that the road surface was barely visible.
On Sunday, in the community of Pacupac, on the north coast of Luzon, pigs marooned on a hillock snuffled for food. Buffalo with implacable expressions waded through the muck. Children splashed because splashing is fun, even if it’s muddy floodwater.
Villagers spread sodden rice on the road to try to save their crop. Men beat sheets of tin into new roofs. The storm had passed, until the next one.
Follow Hannah Beech on Twitter: @hkbeech.
Reporting was contributed by Kimberly dela Cruz and Gen Paz from Aparri, and Richard C. Paddock from Manila.