'Ulysses' vs. 'Ondoy': A tale of rainfall, response efforts

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Maps depicting the breadth of Typhoon Ondoy (left) and Typhoon Ulysses (right)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 13) — As parts of Luzon emerged from Typhoon Ulysses (international name: Vamco), a number of people could not help but compare it to Tropical Storm Ondoy (international name: Ketsana) in 2009.

A weather forecaster and disaster official detailed the differences between the two and the corresponding disaster response efforts..

PAGASA weather forecaster Ana Clauren on Friday said Ulysses dumped 150 millimeters of rain — within the heavy rainfall category — within a 24-hour period, much less than Ondoy's 445 millimeters of rain

"During Ondoy, mas malakas at mas marami ang ulan na natanggap natin. Noong panahon ni Ondoy umiiral din ang southwest monsoon, na-enhance niya si Ondoy, nagdulot din ng malakas na pag-ulan," she told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: There was stronger and more rain during Ondoy. At the time, there was also the southwest monsoon, which enhanced Ondoy, bringing more rains.]

Despite the smaller amount of rainfall, PAGASA said Ulysses caused massive flooding because of rains from three previous successive storms that hit almost the same areas within two weeks, including the strongest in 2020 — Super Typhoon Rolly (international name: Goni).

"Bumaba ang pag-ulan dahil alam natin saturated na ang mga kabundukan at lupa natin," Clauren said.

[Translation: Floodwaters flowed down because the mountains and land were already saturated with rainwater.]

Residents in Marikina City, which was submerged during Ondoy, said they were surprised how floodwaters rose fast.

Mayor Marcelino Teodoro said flooding even hit areas that were previously considered safe. City disaster officials said they expected the Marikina River to swell up to 18 meters. But by noon of Thursday, it rose to 22 meters — surpassing the 21.5 meters during Ondoy. The Japan International Cooperation Agency recorded a higher level: 22.16 meters.

"Napakabilis ng pangyayari. Tulad ngayon mahina na ang pag-ulan sa Marikina, pero kita mo tumataas pa rin ang tubig sa ilang lugar," he said on Thursday.

[Translation: It happened so fast. The rain has subsided, but the floodwater keeps rising.]

Officials in Marikina, which has been hailed as one of the local governments with the best disaster management and response systems in Metro Manila, admitted their preparedness fell short during Ulysses. Despite conducting preemptive and forced evacuation, authorities still had to rescue families from the roofs of their homes; even houses as high as three stories were submerged. The city's 57 rubber boats were not enough to help everyone in need. Teodoro appealed to the private sector and national government for help.

Meanwhile, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) spokesperson Mark Timbal said first responders have learned from Ondoy 11 years ago. He said at the time, even disaster officials were victims of the calamity.

"The families of the rescue teams, the local government (officials) were all inundated. They were not able to provide rescue services immediately," he told CNN Philippines. "What we've seen here with Ulysses, local government were already on the scene, the deployment of rescue teams were done earlier, and the prepositioning. The response of the local government was timely. The continuing ops and equipment deployed were different."

Ondoy killed 464 people and left 37 missing to this day.

In the initial count for Ulysses, 14 died while three were missing. Other agencies have reported higher figures — a usual occurrence in the aftermath of a disaster, with officials needing to validate reports. The Armed Forces of the Philippines reported as of Friday morning 39 deaths and 22 missing people. The NDRRMC has yet to validate these figures.