We have the first typhoon of the year heading our way at the moment, so it seems like as good a time as any to talk about how to be safe and what to expect. They can come at you any time between June and November, and tend to get heavier and windier as the rainy season progresses, so the good news is that most years you get a bit of a grace period to get used to them.
My first bit of general advice, to quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is “Don’t panic!”
If you want to, you can talk to your immediate neighbors and ask them what you can expect to happen in your neighborhood. Should you expect flooding? Do you tend to lose power? You can also ask your househelp to ask your neighbor’s househelp, if you are feeling shy. They may even be able to tell you if the previous tenants in your home dealt with leaks.
Before the storm arrives, make sure you have access to clean water. Sometimes you may not be affected by flooding directly, but the area where your water is pumped from might be. If you have a pool, you will be set for water for flushing toilets, and even bathing if hard pressed. Otherwise, fill your tubs and some buckets before the storm, so you’ll have water for flushing. Also, you’ll want to have some extra drinking water delivered for cooking, washing dishes, and drinking.
As far as food, plan ahead. You will have plenty of notice that a typhoon is coming. They aren’t sneaky. They build and take a while to get to you. So, start planning your food use ahead of time, because if the typhoon is headed to you, there is a good chance that you will lose power for a day or five. Plan your meals in the week ahead of the typhoon to use up what is in your fridge and freezer. Head to the store the day before the storm arrives and buy enough food for 3-4 days that you will not need electricity to keep fresh or prepare. (Spaghetti, cereal with shelf-stable milk, whatever floats your boat without requiring your fridge.) When the storm hits, if/when you lose power, keep your fridge shut and your food should be ok for 24 hours or so. Anything beyond that and you may need to consider throwing most of it out. If you are living in a situation where you only cook using electric, make sure that food can be prepared without having to be heated up. They sell single-burner propane stoves that you could have on hand for such occasions, but make sure you or your helper know how to work it before hand.
Get your ducks in a row. If there is even the slightest chance that you may have to leave your house to seek shelter elsewhere, have a 72 hour kit ready for each member of your household (including your helpers). I’ve used the list at that link to create our family’s kits, and have taught several workshops using it as the guide. It’s very comprehensive. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Get some backpacks, start with medications, then water, food, clothing, etc, and build it up over time. We’ve never had to use ours, but we’ve helped after typhoons in shelters set up for people who have had to leave their homes because of flooding and have seen that these basic preparations can make your life a lot easier. Even if you just land at a friend’s house, you’ll want access to your own clothes, travel documents, and medications.
Think about how you’ll deal with the lack of electricity if it comes to that. And chances are good that it will at some point. This is the most likely problem you will face. Do you have something to light your rooms with? Do you have a way to get news? Do you have a way to try to stay cool? Some expats just invest in a generator that is strong enough to run the fridge and a few fans. That’s great if you can afford it. Just make sure it’s outside in a well ventilated area. Some opt to check in to hotels for a few days after a storm while things get put to rights. Again, great if you can afford it. Otherwise, figure out whether you’re going to use candles or flashlights. The former are less safe around kids, but the latter are more likely to be snitched by your kids when they aren’t really needed and end up with dead batteries by the time you do. We use a couple of these types of all-in-one units. Most of them these days have an internal battery you can charge beforehand, or they can be run off batteries. They also make smaller units that can be used by cranking them for a few minutes every hour. Entertainment is another consideration in our electronics obsessed world. Make sure you have all your phones and doodads charged before the storm. Have some attachments that will allow you to charge them in your car as needed. But also be ready for a family game night or story time.
As far as weathering the storm itself, you may live on a hill, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will stay dry. After a few hours of rainfall, take a walk through your house, checking windowsills and ceilings for leaks. Repeat every few hours. Do this until you have had a storm that has lasted 24 hours or more. A storm of that length will tell you one of two things. Either your house is leak-proof and you can let your guard down and count yourself among one of the lucky few, or it is leak-proof for a certain amount of time and then you need to get out the towels and buckets. It’s not uncommon to have a leak-free house until the storm has been around for 8 hours or so, and then the leaks start, so don’t get too cocky until you’ve endured a really long, heavy rain and know for sure. Different storms cause different leaks, too. Sometimes your home is leak free unless the wind is just right, and then the wind blows the rain into some secret crevice and the leak starts.
Keep an eye outside for the water level in the street. Even if you are in a split level, or your yard wasn’t properly graded, you may end up with water in your house, even if you are on higher ground. The good news is that if you are on higher ground and do get some flooding, it should be temporary and clear out fast. The vast majority of housing that expats find themselves living in is made of cement block. Because it can withstand flooding without major damage, don’t panic if some water does get in. Just make sure that you’ve left nothing that can be damaged on the floor in your lower level, like books or electronics, until you’ve been through several heavy storms and know for sure whether you run the risk of getting water in the house.
If you do find yourself flooded, do the best you can to avoid the flood water. Wait for the flooding to recede out of your house or wear wellies to deal with getting it out of your house. If you have to enter the flood waters, wash your exposed skin thoroughly, dry, and squirt yourself with rubbing alcohol. All sorts of stuff can get into flood waters, from animal and human waste to oil to who knows what. So, it’s really best to do what you can to just avoid it all together. In the meantime, see if you can figure out how the water is getting in and whether there is a way you could place sandbags next time to keep the water from getting in in the first place and get the sandbags prepared before the next storm. (For instance, would a line of sandbags channel the water off your property and into the street better? Is it backing in through the doorway off your driveway?) Your helper will probably be well versed in cleaning up after a flood. Basically, wipe up any residual water and give all surfaces a good rub down.
Avoid driving if you can, and never enter a flooded roadway unless you are already very familiar with it and can tell for absolute-positively sure how deep the water is and that it won’t disrupt your car’s engine.
If your water service is compromised by the storm, you should be informed by your village offices. If you find yourself without water service at all, you can still flush your toilets by pouring a bucket of water from about waist high. Use as little as it takes to trigger the flush, so you don’t have to haul as much water around. Early in our time here, we had to go a month without water service, and I learned how to take a complete shower, including shampoo and conditioner, with a gallon of water. (*flex* Makes ya tough! Especially since it’s usually at room temperature, which feels rather icy in water form.) If you have water, but it’s not safe for people, make sure you supervise your kids at tooth brushing time so they aren’t tempted to use the tap for a quick rinse of their brush. Keep a small bottle of clean water at the bathroom sinks for teeth and hand washing. Check your water bottles before hand and have more delivered before the storm if your supplies are looking low.
Don’t assume that someone has reported power or internet outages. We’ve waited and waited and waited for both to be restored, only to call to complain and find that we’re the first ones who did. Everyone seems to assume someone else has already called or that the company will just know. They don’t seem to have that capacity yet.
The Philippines got a lot of press last year because of the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda. They are still working on rebuilding the area and restoring services in the Tacloban area. The conditions immediately after were shocking. The destruction was mind-boggling. But… Allow me to offer some perspective. That was the worst typhoon in recorded history and the Tacloban region is known for still building in wood. There is no way that combination was going to end well for that area. Most expats coming to the Philippines land in the major metropolitan areas around Manila or Cebu. Chances are very high that you will be living in a concrete structure. If you look at the photos from Yolanda, you will see that the few concrete structures in the area were all still standing. Some may have had some roof damage. The chances of that sort of destruction happening in the area where you will live is very, very small. In the time we’ve been here I’ve only seen one concrete house with a modern metal or shingled roof sustain damage from the wind. In other countries, the media picks up on stories about the Philippines when there is widespread destruction. They don’t report on all the houses and areas that weren’t affected, or the typhoons that only knocked a few branches out of the trees.
When all is said and done, the most likely issue you will face are power and communication outages, followed by water issues (lack of and/or flooding), followed by a fairly low risk of structural damage to your home. Do not let your expectations be shaped by the media you may have seen. My family has come to view typhoons as a fairly ho-hum experience.
That said, not everyone lives in a house that doesn’t flood with only minor leaks in an area that gets high priority for water and power restoration. Be ready to reach out to those around you. Offer friends a place to stay. Volunteer at the shelters that crop up in the village offices near your home to house those who are affected by flooding. Contact the Philippines Red Cross and see if they need any help. As expats, we tend to have it comparably easy in the rainy season. We can help make things better for those who don’t fare so well.